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Obama Reminds Grads What They Can Do for Country

By Alec MacGillis
MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- There were hundreds of diplomas handed out Sunday at Wesleyan University -- and one baton passed.

Sen. Barack Obama agreed last week to fill in for Sen. Edward Kennedy as Weslayan's commencement speaker after Kennedy was diagnosed last week with a cancerous brain tumor. Plenty has already been said and written about the symbolism of Kennedy's endorsement of the young Illinois senator, who has drawn comparisons to both of Kennedy's politician brothers, but Obama's speech Sunday made the analogies even more stark.

Obama, whose legions of young supporters have already recalled memories of John F. Kennedy's idealistic followers in the early 1960s, explicitly invoked Jack Kennedy's New Frontier, as well as the rest of the Kennedy family, as he exhorted the Wesleyan graduates to dedicate themselves to public service.

"I was born the year that ... John called a generation of Americans to ask their country what they could do. And I came of age at a time when they did it," Obama said. He then concluded that today's students should likewise consider giving themselves to a broader cause because "you have an obligation to yourself."

"Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation," he added. "Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you'll play in writing the next great chapter in America 's story."

The speech bore strong echoes of Obama's campaign message, though his call for voluntarism and service differed in one key regard. On the stump, Obama gets big applause by saying he would as president offer all college students a $4,000 tax credit to help pay for college -- but only if they commit to public service, such as the Peace Corps or teaching in an inner-city school or working in a homeless shelter.

But he argued Sunday that public service should be unbidden. "Each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say 'chance' because you won't have to take it," he said. "There's no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America 's. But I hope you don't."

The speech also differed from his usual stump speeches for diverting at moments into the more informal, confiding tone that good commencement speakers know they have to adopt to keep their audience's eyes from glazing over. "I spent much of my childhood adrift," Obama said. "My teenage years were filled with more than the usual dose of adolescent rebellion, and I'll admit that I didn't always take myself or my studies very seriously. I realize that none of you can probably relate to this, but there were many times when I wasn't sure where I was going, or what I would do."

But, he went on, "during my first two years of college -- perhaps because the values my mother had taught me, hard work, honesty, empathy, had resurfaced after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends -- I began to notice a world beyond myself."

At other points, though, the speech edged further into campaign boilerplate than students and their families may have expected at the commencement. "As president, I intend to grow the Foreign Service, double the Peace Corps over the next few years, and engage the young people of other nations in similar programs, so that we work side by side to take on the common challenges that confront all humanity," Obama said.

Near the close of the speech, he made the link between himself and the president who created the Peace Corps nearly five decades ago most explicit -- and in the process voiced some of the increased confidence he has been showing about his chances as the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

"You know, Ted Kennedy often tells a story about the fifth-anniversary celebration of the Peace Corps. He was there, and he asked one of the young Americans why he had chosen to volunteer. And the man replied, 'Because it was the first time someone asked me to do something for my country,' " Obama said. "I don't know how many of you have been asked that question, but after today, you have no excuses. I am asking you, and if I should have the honor of serving this nation as President, I will be asking again in the coming years."

By Post Editor  |  May 25, 2008; 7:04 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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