Saturday, May 21, 2016

Clever Speech

In September, 2012 Rush Limbaugh offered a challenge:

He thinks he's the smartest person in the room; he's deceiving himself by thinking he's the smartest person in the room. Hasn't that always been something I've said about him? But here again is the assumption: "Oh, he's smart! Oh, oh, oh, Charlie! Oh! He has high abilities. He's bright, obviously bright, Charlie!" Where's the evidence? Would somebody show me the evidence of this? 

Evidence before and then- including an ability to get re-elected- abounds.  Most of it, however, is eclipsed by the brilliant commencement speech (transcript, Newsweek) recently delivered by the President at Rutgers University, the second finest college in New Jersey with the initials RU.

President Obama told the graduates what they wanted to hear and in the most gracious, skillful manner. He flattered them in the conventional way, stating "Today, you join a long line of Scarlet Knights whose energy and intellect have lifted this university to heights its founders could not have imagined (and) one of the finest research institutions in America."

He flattered them in a less conventional manner, also, remarking patriotically (without having to evoke the Statute of Liberty)

This is a place where you 3-D-print prosthetic hands for children, and devise rooftop wind arrays that can power entire office buildings with clean, renewable energy. Every day, tens of thousands of students come here, to this intellectual melting pot, where ideas and cultures flow together among what might just be America’s most diverse student body. (Applause.) Here in New Brunswick, you can debate philosophy with a classmate from South Asia in one class, and then strike up a conversation on the EE Bus with a first-generation Latina student from Jersey City, before sitting down for your psych group project with a veteran who’s going to school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. (Applause.)

America converges here. And in so many ways, the history of Rutgers mirrors the evolution of America—the course by which we became bigger, stronger, and richer and more dynamic, and a more inclusive nation.

As with any good, and almost any, commencement speech, this one challenged the students. The President explained

I’m fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (Applause.) It bends towards justice. I believe that. But I also believe that the arc of our nation, the arc of the world does not bend towards justice, or freedom, or equality, or prosperity on its own. It depends on us, on the choices we make, particularly at certain inflection points in history; particularly when big changes are happening and everything seems up for grabs.

Economic, cultural, and technological shifts, though, "offer not only great opportunity, but also great peril" and

Fortunately, your generation has everything it takes to lead this country toward a brighter future. I’m confident that you can make the right choices—away from fear and division and paralysis, and toward cooperation and innovation and hope. (Applause.)

Now, partly, I’m confident because, on average, you’re smarter and better educated than my generation—although we probably had better penmanship—(laughter)—and were certainly better spellers.

As he has demonstrated at White House Correspondent dinners, Obama's comic timing and material are worthy of professional stand-up comedians.  He followed "cooperation and innovation and hope" with "now, partly, I'm confident because, on average, you're smarter and better educated than my generation- although we probably had better penmanship- and were certainly better spellers" (funny and undeniable).  Earlier, the President won six bouts of applause in one paragraph, three of them by a reference to Rutgers' tradition of food trucks, saying "Home of what I understand to be a Grease Truck for a Fat Sandwich. Mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers on your cheesteaks. I'm sure Michelle would approve."

When his speech turned serious, Obama again demonstrated his brilliance, saying what needed to be said safely and avoiding major controversy.  In what could be read- and in Obama's mind, probably is- a rebuke to any candidate promising to make America great again, the President argued

in the eight years since most of you started high school, we’re also better off. You and your fellow graduates are entering the job market with better prospects than any time since 2007. Twenty million more Americans know the financial security of health insurance. We’re less dependent on foreign oil. We’ve doubled the production of clean energy. We have cut the high school dropout rate. We've cut the deficit by two-thirds. Marriage equality is the law of the land. (Applause.)

And just as America is better, the world is better than when I graduated.

Further, in what is accurately perceived as a jab at presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, the President added

.... if you were listening to today’s political debate, you might wonder where this strain of anti-intellectualism came from. (Applause.) So, Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be. In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. (Applause.) It's not cool to not know what you're talking about. (Applause.) That's not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. (Laughter.) That's not challenging political correctness. That's just not knowing what you're talking about. (Applause.) And yet, we've become confused about this.

Who is it who has "become confused about this?" The students and professors listening were justifiably confident it is not they. Voters who reject the notion of electing Donald Trump as President realized it was not them.  The President did not have to nod and wink for us to know who he was thinking of.

Democratics and left-leaning Independents assume the confused people are the supporters of the bombastic, anti-intellectual narcissisti who sells his lack of knowledge as a virtue.  Yet, Obama did not mention Trump. Millions of Americans who like the cut of his jib were denied the opportunity to hear the President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces remind them of the major party candidate whose ignorance has proven no impediment to contradicting himself repeatedly on major issues.  The President's response is to claim "we" have become confused about this.

Additionally, the President explained

when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem. (Applause.)

You know, it's interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about. (Applause.) If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane. (Laughter.)  And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don't want somebody who’s done it before.”  (Laughter and applause.)  The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science—that is the path to decline. It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey—(applause)—he said: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

Who are these leaders? Who are these leaders who reject reason and science? The President, still drawn to the notion of bipartisanship, doesn't say, mentioning only one former or current public official.  He lamented the opposition to an invitation (spring of 2014) to Condoleezza Rice to present a commencement speech at Rutgers. He did mention "a United States senator (who) trotted out a snowball during a floor speech in the middle of winter as “proof” that the world was not warming." That brought some laughter, presumably including the seventeen people who knew he was referring to Republican Senator Inhofe of Idaho.

The President declined to offer names and in so doing, failed to afflict the comfortable.   Clearly, he did not mean himself when he said "we" or "our leaders."  He gave progressives, no doubt the majority among the graduates and others in the academic community, the comfort of knowing it isn't them to whom he was referring. It also spared him criticism he would have received from conservative educators and students if he hadn't shunned clear language.

It made most attendees feel good while others were free to rationalize the comments.  The sentiments President Obama actually expressed were righteous and needed. But devoid of real context in this presidential election year, they benefitted neither Party nor nation.  They were shrewd, and they were classic Obama.

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