Amid Protests, Obama Calls for 'Open Hearts, Open Minds' at Notre Dame
By Michael D. Shear
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- President Obama called for "open hearts, open minds, fair-minded words" as he accepted an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame amid angry protests over his support for abortion rights.
For nearly two years on the campaign trail, and since becoming president, Obama has sought to skirt the emotional intensity and anger that accompany the debate over abortion, preferring instead to focus on issues of war and the economy.
That became impossible Sunday, as his mere presence at one of America's best-known Catholic universities capped a firestorm about whether an institution dedicated to the cause of fighting abortion should honor a president who is committed to a woman's right to choose.
For the second time in a week, questions about how and whether to honor America's first African American president threatened to overwhelm Obama's commencement address amid a swirl of finger-pointing and recriminations by others that spread far beyond the school boundaries.
But as he did in Arizona last Wednesday, Obama appeared energized by the controversy, confronting the issue with relish in his speech to graduates and offering a plea for courteous dialogue while acknowledging that divisions about abortion in the country are all-but irreconcilable.
"Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort?" he says in prepared remarks. "As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without
demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?"
Hundreds of anti-abortion protesters gathered outside the gates of the university as Obama spoke, waving signs and chanting protests. Police arrested several people. Back in Washington, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said it was "inappropriate" for Notre Dame to give Obama an honorary degree.
Billboards on the nearby Indiana Tollway read, "Notre Dame: Obama is pro abortion choice. How dare you honor him." On Fox News Sunday, Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, said Obama's position on abortion "contradicts what it means to be president."
Inside the Joyce Center basketball arena, a handful of the graduates attached yellow crosses and two baby feet to the top of their mortarboards in a silent protest of the president's receipt of the honorary degree. Others amid the crowd of 12,000 affixed Obama's red, white and blue campaign symbol to theirs in support of the president.
Obama was introduced to a loud, sustained standing ovation, but early in his address two hecklers interrupted his remarks. One screamed "Abortion is murder!" "Baby Killer!" and "You have blood on your hands." The crowd responded quickly to drown him out by chanting "We Are N.D." Obama paused but continued moments later.
In his speech, the president did not engage the debate over when life begins, or attempt to justify his beliefs about abortion or stem cell research, which critics of the university say should have disqualified him for an honorary degree. Instead, the president took aim at the loud and angry rhetoric which he said too often dominates the discussion.
It is the failure on both sides to use "fair-minded words," he said, which overly inflames an important debate. As an example, he described his own a campaign website, which at one point used the phrase "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose."
It was not until a doctor e-mailed him about the phrase that he ordered it taken down, he said.
"I didn't change my position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website," he told the crowd. "And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."
Obama's decision to speak directly to the abortion controversy was the second time in a week that the president had used a commencement speech to attempt to reframe a discussion about himself in a broader context.
At Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., Obama talked directly about Arizona State University's decision to deny him an honorary degree. A university spokesman's comment that he did not have "a body of work" to justify the degree became the theme of his speech.
"That's what building a body of work is all about," he told 60,000 people at the stadium. "It's about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy. That's what you want on your
tombstone. It's about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star -- because the one thing I know about a body of work is that it's never finished."
In similar fashion, Obama did not shy away from the Notre Dame controversy yesterday. He stressed the need for cooperation and good will even among those who disagree with each other about the most morally weighted issues.
"Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt," he said. "This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness."
As president, Obama has sidestepped some of the most sensitive questions about life and when it begins. He loosened Bush-era rules governing stem cell research, but left it to Congress to lift the ban on federal money for research.
And he has resisted calls from abortion-rights activists to push for passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would make abortions legal in all cases. During his last news conference, he said it was "not my highest priority."
That did not satisfy the protesters, who gathered outside the view of the presidential motorcade when it arrived. Protesters included anti-abortion activist Terry Randall and Norma McCorvey, the woman at the center of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case on abortion.
Obama is not the first president to be met by protesters at Notre Dame's commencement. About 400 gathered to oppose Ronald Reagan's stand on capital punishment and Central American policy in 1981 and hundreds expressed their anger about George W. Bush's support for the death penalty two decades later.
In 1992, Bishop John D'Arcy boycotted the commencement speech by George H. W. Bush because the university awarded a top medal to Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an ardent supporter of abortion rights.
But none of the presidential speakers has become the lightening rod that Obama has. Despite having played down abortion rights issues as a candidate, his invitation here became a magnet for activists on the campus and outside of it.
Before his speech, an honorary doctor of laws degree was conferred on the president. Provost Thomas G. Burish said Obama represents "a new era of hope" and said that "through his willingness to engage with people who disagree with him ... he is inspiring this nation to heal its divisions."
Posted at 3:21 PM ET on May 17, 2009
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