One concrete result of the controversy at Notre Dame this weekend was a much larger audience for President Obama’s Commencement Address. What we witnessed was a near perfect demonstration of public leadership in an environment of polarization. Obama is at his best when others are squabbling and he plays the role of saying, “We can do better than this.”
I confess to a special interest. I owe my American citizenship to Notre Dame. The University accepted my father’s application to its MBA program thirty years ago (at the time, he was one of only a handful of international students on campus, and doubly in the minority as a Muslim). He loves the University with all his heart – it was his gateway to America. I grew up watching Notre Dame football players touch the yellow “Play Like a Champion Today” sign as they ran out of the locker room onto the field. The President must have touched that sign before his speech, because it was worthy of all those great Notre Dame legends, from Knute Rockne to Joe Montana to Touchdown Jesus.
Harvard scholar Howard Gardener says that the most important thing that leaders do is tell a new story about the possibility of the world, and then embody it themselves. Obama accomplished that masterfully in three basic steps in his speech.
1) Albert Einstein once said that you can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. Obama followed that sage advice by taking the specific controversy around abortion and contextualizing it within the broader question of how people of opposing opinions resolve their differences. He gave examples of groups who oppose each other on specific issues – gay activists and environmental pastors on the issue of AIDS, lawyers and soldiers on national security. Finding common ground is both the hardest and the most important thing we can do in these situations: “we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity – diversity of thought, of culture, and of belief.” (In his introduction of Obama, Notre Dame’s President Father Jenkins also pointed to this as the most important challenge of our times: “More than any problem in the arts or sciences–engineering or medicine–easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.”)
2) Obama offered a tool for finding common ground – extending basic respect to people on the opposite side, recognizing that they are acting in good faith just as you are. And then he gave an example of how he once failed that crucial test. During his 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois, Obama’s website described people who were pro-life as “right-wing idealogues.” Obama changed that description after receiving a letter from a pro-life doctor saying that all he desired was that Obama describe people of his belief in fair-minded words.
3) Obama cited Notre Dame’s own history as embodying the principle he was espousing. Several times he cited the influence of the great Father Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s past president. Towards the end of his speech, he told a story of how Father Hesburgh described Notre Dame – as both a lighthouse and a crossroads. An institution that both stands apart shining its timeless wisdom, and also exists within the jazz and war of contemporary culture.
A lighthouse and a crossroads. That’s not a bad metaphor for what this President is trying to be.