It's not about me. It's about you. That may be the final lesson that President Obama gave Arizona State University graduates at their commencement address Wednesday night. The ASU administration created a national controversy several weeks ago when it announced that the president -- unlike, it seemed, almost all other invited commencement speakers -- would not receive an honorary degree from the institution. What seemed most galling was the language the school used:
"University spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said Tuesday that the University awards honorary degrees to recognize individuals for their work and accomplishments spanning their lifetime.
"'Because President Obama’s body of work is yet to come, it’s inappropriate to recognize him at this time,' Keeler said."
You can make it to the White House, but apparently that doesn't mean a whole lot in the big picture. There's still work to do! Now, this particular writer happens to be a Republican, but I think that ASU made a serious faux pas. Even if -- as embarrassed university officials said later -- that it no longer gives honorary degrees to sitting politicians, it's probably a good idea to make an exception for the president.
The commander in chief is probably the biggest "get" that any graduating class could ask for. He doesn't have to go, but it ends up being a major thrill for the seniors -- plus parents, alumni, boosters and other possible fundraisers. Forget about political party, it's a big thing. Instead, ASU made this more about themselves than about their own students.
But, give the president credit. He got the last laugh Wednesday -- and not in the White House Correspondents Dinner laughing sense. He dispensed with the controversy with an early joke: He promised not to pick against the ASU Sun Devils in the NCAA while "threatening" the university administration with an IRS audit.
He then followed a classic bit of advice to rhetorical effect: If life gives you lemons, turn it into lemonade. He took the phrase ASU offered as an excuse not to give him an honorary degree and used it as the foundation for a rather powerful exhortation.
He states that -- like the president standing before them, "Your body of work is yet to come." He then uses that phrase as both a foundation and home signal for a speech on the importance of perseverance in the face of challenge:
"That's a good motto for all of us -- find someone to be successful for. Rise to their hopes and their needs. As you think about life after graduation, as you look in the mirror tonight, you may see somebody with no idea what to do with their life. But a troubled child might look at you and see a mentor. A homebound senior citizen might see a lifeline. The folks at your local homeless shelter might see a friend. None of them care how much money is in your bank account, or whether you're important at work, or famous around town -- they just know that you're someone who cares, someone who makes a difference in their lives.
"That is what building a body of work is all about -- it's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up to a lasting legacy. It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star -- because one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished. It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, and give back, and contribute to the life of this nation. You may have set-backs, and you may have failures, but you're not done - not by a long shot."
He eventually uses the term seven times throughout, finally concluding:
"I know starting your careers in troubled times is a challenge. But it is also a privilege.
"Because it is moments like these that force us to try harder, to dig deeper, to discover gifts we never knew we had -- to find the greatness that lies within each of us. So don't ever shy away from that endeavor. Don't ever stop adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the better for that continued effort, as will this nation that we all love."
One of the classic Greek aphorisms is, "Count no man happy until he's dead." Everything until the final moments of an individual's life is open for further shaping, constructing and improving. Everything, as Obama says, adds to "the body of work."
Nearly all commencement addresses have similar structures and rhetoric. That's no surprise, of course. After all, they are used to commemorate a specific passage of life. Therefore, the only way to make an address special is for the speaker to identify something unique about this particular school or this particular time. ASU's administration gave President Obama a gift. He took it, ran with it and passed it on. In so doing, he gave the ASU graduating class of 2009 something that they can truly use -- words to live by, not just for a day or a week, but for a lifetime.