Condoleezza Rice's speech at Vanderbilt Thursday blended snippets of personal narrative with tepid commencement platitudes into a package that was superficially articulate, but really quite banal in substance and unexpectedly flat in delivery. Perhaps this marks it as a fairly typical commencement address (although this one was pre-commencement at Vanderbilt, where a tradition of no outside speakers at the actual graduation endures). As Rice observed, recalling her own college graduation, "I do not...remember a single word that the commencement speaker said, and you won't either."
But Rice's speech is worth rememberingnot just because she's a key mouthpiece for the Bush-Cheney war machine, but for its memorable elevation of hypocrisy and disingenuousness to a rhetorical art form. Although rooted in a few compelling anecdotal references to Rice's early upbringing in the pre-civil-rights movement South, the speech arrived at the kind of fatuous, blinkered perspectives on 21st century America that are the stock and trade of Bush White House propagandists.
Let's go to the transcript.
"Merit alone did not see you to this day. There are many people in this country, many from your hometown, some even from your own high school, who are just as intelligent, just as hard-working, and just as deserving, but for whatever reason, they didn't have that one teacher that inspired them, or parents who made it possible, and they didn't enjoy the opportunities that came your way."
Yes, it is a deep mystery why so many people fail to achieve the successes of Vanderbilt graduates. But let's not fret about that, or try to understand "whatever reasons" might explain it. Way too complicated. Besides, Vandy grads, a goodly number of those people who "don't enjoy the opportunities that came your way" are instead enjoying the opportunity to be killed or maimed in Iraq, and we certainly wouldn't want to dwell on that unpleasantness.
"America and Americans are willing to embrace all that is good in the world, in art and science and culture, while maintaining the basic principles of American liberty as enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights."
This is quite a somersault of self-delusion from a woman shilling for a president who sees evolution and creationism as having equal scientific credibility, for a White House that persistently downplays legitimate science on environmental protection and medical research, for a party would rather defund the arts, and for an administration that thinks "maintaining liberty" means diluting the Bill of Rights by extending and expanding the Patriot Act.
"A first generation American has as much claim to the legacy of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as those who can trace their roots to the Mayflower."
Rice failed to elaborate on how and why this excludes individuals unlucky enough to be detained (and presumed guilty) as suspected enemy combatants, or on why the administration she represents will go all the way to the Supreme Court to ensure that no obligations of due process or constitutional protection (those pesky legacies of the founders) are forced upon it.
"Thanks to the courage of many, some famous and some who history will never record, America had a second founding, and in that second founding, the old South passed away.... You can see it here in Nashville, with its nationally influential health care and music industries, its economic growth and its diverse neighborhoods. America is finally becoming whole."
Yep, that's us, great health care, diverse neighborhoods. You can tell she's in touch with our community. Most Vanderbilt undergraduates and their parents aren't either, so she can get away with making up stuff like this.
"The education you have had has privileged you to be with those who are unlike you."
Perhaps she wrote this line for her commencement speech last week at Michigan State, but inadvertently used it at Vanderbilt instead.
"Your third obligation is to work to further the same democratic progress here and abroad that has made your own opportunities possible."
Now would that be the same obligation your fellow Republicans in Texas and Pennsylvania are meeting when they blatantly abuse the redistricting process to undermine democracy in favor of gaining a few more congressional seats?
"We should never indulge in the condescending voices that allege that some people are not interested in freedom, or aren't ready for freedom's responsibility. That view was wrong in 1963 in Birmingham, and it's wrong in 2004 in Baghdad."
A cheap applause line, and classic sophistry. Who are these voices making such allegations about Iraq? Can you name...um...one? Does it make a disastrous war-making foreign policy seem more successful when you invent opposing "voices" that don't actually exist?
"With all of the images of troops and tanks and military operations, it's hard to remember that this is primarily a war of ideas, not armies."
What "ideas" would those be? The ones about imminent threats from nonexistent weapons that trumped up a war? The ones about how to extract information from imprisoned Iraqis? The ones about crumbling U.S. diplomatic credibility worldwide?
As expected, Rice's speech mostly steered clear of direct references to difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many would call this a prudent strategy for a commencement gig. But Rice was invited, and her presence was big news, because she is an architect and spokesperson for the antagonistic U.S. role in the most provocative events of the day. Yet the war in Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal, tenacious global terrorism, the unrelenting Israeli-Palestinian powder kegthese were the unmentioned elephants in the middle of Vanderbilt's Alumni Lawn. When Rice was finished, I felt not so much disappointed that she sidestepped the big issues as just plain insulted. The Bush administration's essential and consistent political strategy is to hide the truth, obfuscate when possible and pretend on all occasions and in the face of all evidence that things are just peachy. Condoleezza Rice came to town and showed us how it's done. Vanderbilt gave her a medal for it.
Bruce Barry is a professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt.