George H. W. Bush’s commencement speech at Southern Methodist University was long on rhetoric and short on specifics.
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During the weekend of graduation at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in May, the rain began as little more than a mist on Friday night. Then it came down harder and harder, until it was a tropical deluge. We were reassured in various speeches that rain was a good omen for weddings and commencements, and no one wanted to dispute the notion. Everyone there, all the parents and faculty and students, was glad that these four years were over. It was time to move on, no matter what the future might hold.
And to reveal what that future might be, George Bush would speak at the commencement ceremony Saturday morning. He had accepted three invitations to speak at graduation ceremonies. At Notre Dame he would talk about families and personal values; at the United States Naval Academy he would talk about defense; and here at SMU he would talk about the economy. That sounded interesting. Not only had Bush reneged on his campaign promise of no new taxes, but he was also proposing wilder spending than any president in history. His 1993 budget was $1.52 trillion—almost a third more than Ronald Reagan’s last budget, just four years ago, a time when the Soviet empire was still regarded as a monolithic threat. Maybe in his speech the president would say what he wanted to buy for all that money.
More likely, and really more to the point for the audience he was about to address, he would discuss the difficult prospects the graduates would be immediately facing. Unfortunately, these young people were seeing that the United States today was not a land of promise and opportunity for them. In the preceding week, newspapers in Texas and across the country had published front-page stories about the problems college graduates were having as they looked for jobs. On May 15, the day before Bush’s speech, the Dallas Morning News ran the headline Graduates Face Gloomy Job Market. The story quoted one SMU graduate as saying, “I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been going through the malls.” Another graduate said, “It’s kind of depressing when other people are laid off and are well-educated and they’re trying out for jobs you’re trying out for.” That same week in a similar story, the Houston Post quoted an official from Texas A&M as saying, “It’s the worst market in 25 years.” In the center of the front page, the paper ran a color photograph of a Rice graduate. He had a balloon that read, “Hire Me,” attached with a string to his mortarboard.
And there was no reason to think that the job market would improve. Two days before Bush spoke, IBM announced it would cut four hundred jobs in the Dallas area. The very next day, the domestic arm of Exxon announced that by August it would cut more than one thousand jobs. Many of the jobs would be white-collar positions in marketing and similar departments that a college graduate might aspire to. These cuts are hardly unique. Very few businesses are expanding their work force; most are contracting. A national survey reported that of 259 firms contacted, nearly half planned to decrease their hiring this year. The jobs that were available tended to be menial and low-paying, exactly the sort of job a college degree is supposed to propel a graduate beyond. That same week the Census Bureau released figures showing that the number of Americans in jobs that paid below the poverty level for a family of four had increased nearly 50 percent in the past decade.
I did know one graduate—exactly one—who would leave the day after the ceremonies for a promising position in his chosen field. Many of the rest were simply going on in school, often for lack of anything better to do. Every parent and relative in the audience had read those stories in the newspapers with dismay, and the students had either read them or experienced their truth directly. President Bush, who was in Houston the day before his speech, must have seen those same stories in the same papers. Surely at SMU, where the audience would be dependably friendly to a Republican president, a commencement speech on the economy would provide a natural opportunity for him to discuss his thoughts and policy on the apparently stagnant future that confronted the young people in his audience.
The president’s speech was not publicized much beforehand. Even the tickets, carefully apportioned to each graduate, did not mention his name. There were barricades on the road to Moody Coliseum. A few protesters stood near the barricades. They were young enough and looked so casually stylish that they could have been students too. Their signs demanded jobs.
Everyone entering the coliseum doors had to pass through a metal detector. Women’s purses were searched thoroughly. Even cigarette cases and the like were opened for close inspection. Cameras had to be turned on so the guard could look through the lens. Umbrellas, of which there were plenty on this wet, gray morning, were shaken and opened.
Inside, a dais, draped in red and blue bunting, stood at one end, where a basketball goal would normally be. The graduates were to sit in lines of folding chairs on the floor. Relatives and friends lucky enough to have tickets found places in rows of seats that ascended in sharp vertical angles toward the ceiling. We arrived not long after eight to find the coliseum half full and more people streaming in. We settled back for a long wait. The ceremonies began at ten, and the president did not speak until ten-thirty.
He began with a few pleasantries. Then he said, “Right after my own commencement, Barbara and I lit out for Odessa in our 1947 Studebaker to try our hands out there in the oil fields of West Texas … the opportunities America offered on that commencement day seemed limitless. I think many of you wonder whether that holds true for you. This morning I want to make the case that today’s America is still a rising nation—that the country you’re inheriting offers those same limitless opportunities that it held for Barbara and for me, and for your parents and for your grandparents.”
Had he made the case, it might have been a better speech; but he didn’t. He said that pessimists had been wrong about America in the late 1890’s, in the Depression of the 1930’s, in the 1950’s, when the Soviets launched the first satellite, and that the pessimists were always wrong. He said today’s pessimists were “ungracious”—a strange word to use, I thought, as if having an opinion were bad manners—and also “inaccurate.” He cited statistics to prove that the American worker is the most productive and best educated on earth, that our standard of living is high above that of other industrial countries, that we were leading—not falling behind—in science and technology, and that manufacturing, supposedly in decline, was growing faster than the rest of the economy. It wasn’t necessary to quibble with his statistics to wonder about the answer to the main question in the audience’s minds: If what Bush said was true, why couldn’t willing, productive, highly educated college graduates find jobs in manufacturing or anyplace else.
But the president chose not to answer that question. He went on to speak in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He got warm applause when he endorsed the freedom of parents to choose their children’s schools at all levels. He stopped short of endorsing a voucher system, but that had to be what he meant. He wanted to reform the health care system but did not say how. He got his biggest applause for saying that the explosion in litigation both drains the economy and “weakens the ethic of personal responsibility that lies at the heart of our national character. America would be a better country if we sued each other less and reached out to help each other more.”
He also got a big ovation for saying it was time for Washington to get its own house in order. I thought a good place to start might be with his own budget. Instead, he favored a balanced-budget amendment. He spoke a bit about the Los Angeles riots and his “weed and seed” proposal. He concluded by saying, “I do not pretend to know the shape of the next century… . But I do know this. The next century will be your century. If you believe in freedom and if you hold fast to your values and if you remain faithful to our role in the world, it is sure to be yet another American century.”
I suppose this rhetoric might have had meaning if the rest of the speech had had substance. Instead, the speech was evasive almost to the point of contempt. The president ignored the single most important question in the lives of his respectful and, in spite of everything, hopeful audience: Why aren’t there jobs?
George Bush will not win or lose the election because of this one speech. But that morning, he stood before as sympathetic an audience as he is likely to have, leaving aside expensive fundraisers and the Republican National Convention. It was also an audience with one clear concern. And the president failed to address that concern directly. He had no solutions to propose because he refused to recognize that there was a problem. He relied on irrelevant statistics and an appeal to patriotism to carry the day. If George Bush should lose in November, the reasons will be the blindness and remoteness and imperfect understanding he revealed that rainy Saturday morning as he happily babbled on.