By Dan Froomkin
11:00 AM ET, 05/14/2009
In his commencement address at Arizona State University, President Obama last night made repeated cracks about the university's controversial decision not to grant him an honorary degree.
A university spokesman at one point had said that Obama had not established the appropriate "body of work."
"I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. (Laughter.) First of all, Michelle concurs with that assessment. (Laughter.) She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home. But more than that, I come to embrace the notion that I haven't done enough in my life; I heartily concur; I come to affirm that one's title, even a title like President of the United States, says very little about how well one's life has been led -- that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve. (Applause.)"
In a speech that, as Michael D. Shear writes for The Washington Post, called for the graduates to reject the old formulas for success and shape a new future for their generation, Obama said that "the elevation of appearance over substance, celebrity over character, short-term gain over lasting achievement is precisely what your generation needs to help end....
"[F]ind somebody to be successful for. Raise their hopes. Rise to their needs," Obama said. "[T]hat's 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 over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy." (My italics.)
"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. It's cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, each day that you give back and contribute to the life of your community and your nation.
Obama encouraged the young people to maintain an approach to life that includes: "a willingness to follow your passions, regardless of whether they lead to fortune and fame; a willingness to question conventional wisdom and rethink old dogmas; a lack of regard for all the traditional markers of status and prestige -- and a commitment instead to doing what's meaningful to you, what helps others, what makes a difference in this world....
"That's the great American story: young people just like you, following their passions, determined to meet the times on their own terms. They weren't doing it for the money. Their titles weren't fancy -- ex-slave, minister, student, citizen. A whole bunch of them didn't get honorary degrees. (Laughter and applause.) But they changed the course of history."