Hail to the Chief
Notre Dame's long history with the nation’s highest public office
When Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to receive an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame, it came at what on the surface would seem to be an unusual event: a special convocation on Dec. 9, 1935, recognizing the evolving independence of the Philippine Islands.
In fact, however, the University had long taken an abiding interest in the Philippines due to the predominance of Catholics in that commonwealth. As Notre Dame historian Rev. Arthur Hope, C.S.C., put it in his chronicle of the University’s first 100 years: “The fate of these people, Catholic for centuries under Spanish rule, was followed with deep concern after the Spanish-American War. It gave great satisfaction to American Catholics to review the benignant rule that had left the Filipinos their religious liberties and brought them an undreamed of measure of material progress.”
So it was that Notre Dame planned a celebration of the passage of U.S. legislation that would fully establish an independent Philippines in 10 years. The event was scheduled to coincide with the inauguration of the country’s first president, Manuel Quezon, but when Roosevelt learned of the celebration, he asked that it be delayed until he could attend. The University’s president, Rev. John F. O’Hara, C.S.C., agreed and asked Roosevelt to also accept an honorary degree.
With some 5,000 students, faculty, staff and visitors in attendance, the University cited Roosevelt as a “leader and ruler who, with faith and invincible courage when other brave men were faltering, took the reins of government at a crisis which threatened with collapse and chaos the centuried civilization and institutions of our country and the rest of the world, and who is now by achievement even more than by official position the first citizen of our republic.”
The president then delivered a 14-minute speech reviewing the U.S. role in the Philippines over the previous 40 years. He concluded by drawing a comparison between Notre Dame’s values and the intrinsic rights of all people.
“…There can be no true national life, either within a nation itself or between that nation and other nations, unless there be the specific acknowledgment of, and the support of organic law to, the rights of man,” the president said. “Supreme among those rights we, and now the Philippine Commonwealth, hold to be the rights of freedom of education and freedom of worship. This University from which we send our welcome to the new commonwealth exemplifies the principles of which I speak.”
FDR was the first of, to date, nine U.S. presidents upon whom Notre Dame has conferred an honorary degree. The first to receive that distinction and to also serve as the principal commencement speaker was Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose invitation in the spring of 1960 came—by presidential scheduling standards—at the last minute. The story goes that several individuals had declined for various reasons invitations from the University’s president, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. His administrative assistant, Helen Hosinski, long an admirer of Ike, suggested that Father Hesburgh invite the president. Father Hesburgh had been appointed by Eisenhower to the National Science Board and to the nascent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, but the Notre Dame leader was reluctant to invite Eisenhower on such short notice. Nevertheless, he told his aide that if she would draft a letter, he’d sign it. Much to Father Ted’s surprise, Eisenhower accepted and, in fact, interrupted the 45th reunion of his class at the U.S. Military Academy to travel to South Bend.
In his 20-minute commencement address, Eisenhower foreshadowed a U.S. government on the verge of social and political change, and one facing the difficult task of striking the right balance.
“We do not want governmental programs which, advanced, often falsely, in the guise of promoting the general welfare destroy in the individual those priceless qualities of self-dependence, self-confidence and a readiness to risk his judgment against the trends of the crowd,” Eisenhower said. “We do want a government that assures the security and general welfare of the nation and its people in concord with the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln, who insisted that government should do, and do only, the things which people cannot well do for themselves.”
Eisenhower wasn’t the only prominent honoree on the 1960 commencement platform. Also receiving an honorary degree was Cardinal Giovanni Montini, who three years later became Pope Paul VI.
The nation’s first and still only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, never spoke at Notre Dame during his presidency. But he did have a long and close relationship with the University prior to winning the 1960 election, and while in office he received Notre Dame’s highest honor.
As a congressman, Kennedy served as the winter commencement speaker and received an honorary degree on Jan. 29, 1950. He said: “This is a happy day in my life. I am deeply honored in being admitted to the ranks of the men of Notre Dame (this was before the University began admitting women in 1972). I have cheered for old Notre Dame for most of my life, and so you can understand my feelings as I come for the first time to this great university dedicated to Our Lady of the Lake.”
He went on to reflect on the value of education, the rights of the individual over the state and various economic and political problems of the day. In closing, the future president said: “High on the wall of the House of Representatives in Washington, so that everyone can see, are written words we should remember. They were from a speech by a distinguished senator from my native state of Massachusetts—Daniel Webster: ‘Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, and promote all its great interests and see whether we also in our day and generation may not perform something worthy to be remembered.’”
Kennedy and his wife of one month, Jacqueline, attended a Notre Dame football game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 17, 1953. Four years later, Kennedy returned to Notre Dame to accept the University’s 1957 Patriotism Award. In his self-deprecating way, he said, “I am not sure that my selection by the senior class (for this honor) is evidence of the outstanding judgment and wisdom the University has tried to instill in them in four years.” Clearly taken with the words of Daniel Webster, he closed his 1957 address with the same quote he cited in 1950.
Just two months later, Kennedy spoke to the Notre Dame Club of Washington, D.C., speaking at length about his service on a special Senate committee investigation of labor racketeering. In addition to his speaking engagements on and off campus, JFK was a charter member of the Notre Dame Lay Advisory Council for the College of Liberal and Fine Arts (now the College of Arts and Letters), which was formed in 1954 and met on campus twice yearly.
Kennedy accepted Notre Dame’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal, a little over a year after his election as president. The oldest and most prestigious honor given to an American Catholic, the Laetare Medal was established in 1883 and is awarded to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
Father Hesburgh bestowed the award on the president in an Oval Office ceremony Nov. 22, 1961, two years to the day before his death in Dallas.
Notre Dame did not host another president until March 17, 1975, when Gerald Ford participated in a St. Patrick’s Day academic convocation, accepted an honorary degree and delivered a speech against a “new isolationism.” While on campus he also met with a collection of Midwest governors, a group of college and university president and select Notre Dame faculty members. He added in a news conference for good measure.
Jimmy Carter received an honorary degree and delivered what many regard as the key foreign policy address of his presidency at the University’s 1977 May commencement. The president spoke of a diminishing threat from the Soviet Union, a notion dismissed as naive at the time but which proved prophetic. At the same time, he advocated the creation of new global alliances and championed human rights, policies built upon the “new reality of a politically awakening world.”
During his one-term presidency, Carter appointed Father Hesburgh to head a delegation of Americans to a United Nations conference on science and technology for development, held in Vienna in 1977, and as chair of the Select Committee on Immigration and Refugee Policy. Father Hesburgh also joined with first lady Rosalynn Carter on a fact-finding mission to Southeast Asia that led to an effort that averted mass starvation among Cambodian refugees.
The Carters returned to Notre Dame in 1992 as the inaugural recipients of the Notre Dame Award, which recognizes men and women of any faith or nationality whose life and deeds have shown exemplary dedication to the ideals for which the University stands: faith, inquiry, education, justice, public service, peace and care for the most vulnerable.
At a memorial tribute to Father Hesburgh after his death Feb. 26, 2015, at the age of 97, the Carters joined with other dignitaries in honoring the man who led Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987. Among several anecdotes, Carter recalled how he made the “mistake” in 1979 of asking Father Hesburgh if there was anything he could do for him. Father Hesburgh told Carter he wanted a ride on an SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance jet, known as the Blackbird. “I said, ‘Father Hesburgh, it’s not customary for civilians to ride on top-secret aircraft,’” Carter said. “He said, ‘That's all right. I thought you were commander in chief.’”
Carter stood by his word and arranged for the flight and, as he recalled at the tribute: “I sent word to a pilot of an SR-71 that he would be having his first civilian passenger who was a special friend of mine. And, I asked him how fast the Blackbird had ever flown. He said 2,193 mph. It was the fastest plane on earth. I said I would be very pleased if he could go a little faster than that when he took up Father Hesburgh. And, on the last day of February, 1979, Father Ted went up in an SR-71 Blackbird airplane and he and the pilot went 2,200 mph, which set a new world record.”
Security was exceptionally tight in May 1981 when President Ronald Reagan made his first public appearance after the attempt on his life in March. Reagan had an indirect association with Notre Dame ever since his portrayal of Fighting Irish football legend George Gipp in the 1940 film “Knute Rockne, All-American.” The president was reunited with his costar in the movie, Pat O’Brien, who also received an honorary degree. Melding his personas as the “Gipper” and president, Reagan promised to win one for the “private sector” by shrinking the nation’s government. Americans, Reagan said, “have made it plain they want an end to excessive government intervention in their lives and in the economy.”
Reagan also told the graduates about a need for a strong national defense. But he predicted: “The West will not contain communism, it will transcend communism. We’ll dismiss it as a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
Reagan returned to Notre Dame in 1988 to dedicate a 22-cent stamp honoring Rockne, the iconic Irish football coach of the 1920s. White House officials wanted to make the event all about football, but University leadership balked. Nevertheless, someone from the White House snuck a football in the president’s lectern and Reagan grabbed it during his speech and threw a pass to Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown.
Reagan concluded his remarks at the stamp dedication by saying: “Notre Dame stands among the winds of subjectivity for lasting values and principles that are at the heart of our civilization and upon which all human progress is built. If they want to see the goodness and love of life of this generation, the commitment to decency and a better future, let them come here … to Notre Dame.”
President George H.W. Bush delivered an address on family values and service to community at Notre Dame’s 1992 Sesquicentennial Year exercises.
The American family is “an institution under siege,” Bush said. “Today’s crisis will have to be addressed by millions of Americans at the personal, individual level for governmental programs to be effective. And the federal government, of course, must do everything it can do, but the point is, government alone is simply not enough.”
The University’s honorary degree citation read in part: “The forty-first occupant of the White House, he has faced international and domestic challenge alike with personal integrity and a measured confidence born of faith in the resiliency of the Republic and its people.”
Bush visited the Notre Dame campus on five occasions. One week before his election to the presidency in 1988, he made a campaign stop at Notre Dame, where he addressed more than 2,000 students, faculty and staff at the Stepan Center, speaking of the “great divide” between his values and those of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
A year earlier, Bush spoke at the closing ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games, which were held at Notre Dame. He also attended Notre Dame football games in 1986 and 2001.
Like Eisenhower and Carter, Bush turned to a Notre Dame president, Rev. Edward A. Malloy, C.S.C., to serve on two of his key initiatives—the President’s Drug Advisory Council and his Points of Light Foundation.
Bush’s son, George W. Bush, delivered his first presidential commencement address at Notre Dame in May 2001, declaring that the nation’s faith-based organizations were central to the war on poverty. “There is no great society which is not a caring society,” he said, adding: Government should never fund the teaching of faith, but it should support the good works of the faithful.
Bush had visited Notre Dame twice previously for football games, as well as in March 1980 to advance the presidential candidacy of his father at a Mock Republican Convention. He returned March 4, 2005, to deliver a speech at the Joyce Center on Social Security. After his presidency, Bush and the former first lady Laura Bush joined in a dedication ceremony for O’Neill Hall, a music and sacred music building named in honor of Notre Dame alumnus and Trustee Joseph I. O’Neill III. He and his wife, Jan, introduced the Bushes to each other when the couples lived in Lubbock, Texas.
On March 20, 2009, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would serve as the commencement speaker at Notre Dame’s ceremony on May 17. Within an hour, University offices were receiving heated phone calls and email messages from people angry that Notre Dame would recognize a pro-choice president. The controversy continued for the next two months, (and even at times to this day) on campus, in print, on the web and over the networks, fueled by outside agitators, concerned alumni, media pundits and U.S. bishops. Many called for Notre Dame to rescind the invitation, but the University’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., never wavered; nor did the president.
On the day of the commencement ceremony, several thousand protesters gathered on the South Quad and an alternative graduation ceremony was held at the Grotto for students who chose to boycott the president’s appearance. Inside the Joyce Center, Obama was greeted with a long and loud ovation as he entered the arena with Father Jenkins.
Prior to the commencement address, Father Jenkins reflected for 17 minutes on the invitation to the president and the ensuing firestorm.
He said, in part: “As we all know, a great deal of attention has surrounded President Obama’s visit to Notre Dame. We honor all people of good will who have come to this discussion respectfully and out of deeply held conviction. Most of the debate has centered on Notre Dame’s decision to invite and honor the president. Less attention has been focused on the president’s decision to accept. President Obama has come to Notre Dame, though he knows well that we are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Others might have avoided this venue for that reason. But President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him. Mr. President: This is a principle we share.”
When Obama stepped to the lectern, he received another warm ovation. Early in his speech, two or three hecklers attempted to disrupt the ceremony but ultimately were shut down by Notre Dame students who, in a display of loyalty and solidarity, chanted in unison, “We are ND.”
Obama spoke of the controversy surrounding his visit and paid homage to Father Hesburgh, whose work as a charter member of the Civil Rights Commission made it possible many years later for Obama to become the nation’s first African-American president. Obama also offered a challenge to the graduates.
“Your class,” he said, “has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and for the world — a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our world to renew its promise; that we align our deepest values and commitments to the demands of a new age. It’s a privilege and a responsibility afforded to few generations — and a task that you’re now called to fulfill.
“This generation, your generation is the one that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before the most recent crisis hit — an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day’s work.
“Your generation must decide how to save God’s creation from a changing climate that threatens to destroy it. Your generation must seek peace at a time when there are those who will stop at nothing to do us harm, and when weapons in the hands of a few can destroy the many. And we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity — diversity of thought, diversity of culture and diversity of belief.
“In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family.”
Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton had somewhat limited interaction with Notre Dame.
In recognition of Father Hesburgh’s work on the Civil Rights Commission, Johnson presented the Notre Dame president with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Nixon attended a Notre Dame football game just three weeks after he and Eisenhower were elected president and vice president in November 1952. Three years after Kennedy received the Patriot of the Year Award, Nixon was the recipient on Feb. 23, 1960. He told the assembled students: “When you go out from this University, may I urge you to strike at ignorance, strike at provincialism, strike at prejudice wherever it rears its head.”
Later that year, Nixon and Kennedy squared off in groundbreaking debates and a down-to-the wire election.
Presidential Commencement Addresses
Notre Dame has a long history with the nation’s highest public office having conferred nine honorary degrees upon U.S. presidents and welcoming others to campus.
Nixon is perhaps best known to Notre Dame faithful as the president who first appointed Father Hesburgh chair of the Civil Rights Commission in 1969, then fired the priest three years later when the commission leveled criticism at the administration for failing to carry out various civil rights laws.
Clinton appeared on campus in September 1992 for a campaign rally held in the Stepan Center. Like Obama 17 years later, Clinton faced pro-life protesters.
In recognition of his Indiana roots and former service as the state’s governor, Mike Pence, vice president to President Donald Trump, was invited to deliver the commencement address in 2017. As Pence began his speech, about 100 students quietly left the venue in protest.
Notre Dame’s six presidential visits for commencement is more than for any institution of higher learning other than the military academies.