The future lies ahead (Obama at Wesleyan)

I have written (for myself and others), delivered, and heard a large number of Commencement speeches over the years. It is a surprisingly difficult form to pull off without embarrassment. The tricky part is to make the homily-type "seize the challenge of the future!" points that really are required on such occasions, without sounding sappy, pompous, cliched, or --worst --long-winded. The test is: could someone read the transcript, at a safe remove from the emotions of the day, without giggling or yawning?

Barack Obama passed that test yesterday, when subbing for Sen. Kennedy at the Wesleyan commencement ceremony. Or so I judge by reading the transcript of the speech just now.

For instance, this is a subtler version of a familiar point, more deftly made, than commencement speakers -- especially politicians -- are usually able to get across.

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. 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. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. 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

By wild chance, I actually sat a few feet from Obama when he gave another commencement speech, at Northwestern, two years ago.* That speech was good, but based on this latest transcript he has gotten better at the necessary poetry of ceremonial speaking since then. These speeches are poems in that they don't allow the space to spell points out prosaically, and in their goal of evoking familiar, universal feelings in an unusual way. Such progress, from a high starting point, is worth noticing.

* Obama was the university's commencement speaker, and recipient of an honorary degree, that day in 2006. Just before leaving for China, I also got a Northwestern honorary degree at the same ceremony. In addition to the obvious humbling honor of that fact, the wild chance was that I walked just behind Obama in the long, slow procession and sat next to him on the stage. The tens of thousands of people in Ryan Field erupted in cheers as soon as they saw Obama in the procession -- he had not announced for president at that point, but he was already a star, and after all he was the state's new senator. It is quite a strange phenomenon to be two feet away from the object of a gigantic crowd's attention. Strange, but fun.

Update: I see that M. Yglesias also picked out this very passage in a post from Sunday night.