All the presidents’ visits

Author: Richard Conklin


It was during the March 1975 visit of President Gerald Ford to Notre Dame that we learned how dangerous it is to sup with the leader of the free world.

At a dinner for Midwest governors atop the Memorial Library, a Secret Service man stationed at the door to the holding kitchen watched as wait staff brought out the entrees. “That one,” he said randomly, and the plate toward which he had nodded was served to President Ford. In short, if you intended to poison the president, you had to poison everyone.

It would be 26 years before another sitting president — George W. Bush — dined on campus, but in that period three more holders of the nation’s highest office would address graduates at commencement, giving the University an apparent record for presidential graduation addresses among U.S. institutions of higher learning (apart from service academies).

Each visit by a president to campus means extensive interaction with the Secret Service and the White House staff, and for a commencement appearance, the burden falls upon Campus Security, Student Affairs, the Registrar’s and Provost’s offices, Special Events, Food Services, Public Relations and Information, and the Joyce Center staff. The questions range from the president’s hat size to arena camera positions, from whether to close Juniper Road to who is in the “greet room,” from deciding which areas of the Joyce Center need repainting to how best to convey to graduates that this is not the time to pop champagne corks. Every movement of the president is minutely planned, to the mark on the stage where he is to be hooded.

Presidents come to Notre Dame because it is a national platform from which to address primarily Catholics but also others interested in what political strategists might call “values issues.” The news media focus is intense — a media pool accompanies the president on Air Force One, the rest of the traveling broadcast and print journalists and technicians come on a separate plane, and local and regional media flock to any event that includes the nation’s leader. Since Notre Dame enjoys a unique position in the symbolic life of the American Catholic Church, things are parsed twice. At what other commencement in the country would a student indicate his dissatisfaction with the president of the United States by praying the rosary on his knees with his back to the stage? And where else would a Protestant president cite Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa? Welcome to the second Bush Commencement at Notre Dame.

The modern tradition of presidents addressing spring graduation exercises started with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960 and came about because of a determined secretary, Helen Hosinski. An assistant to the University’s then president, Father Theodore Hesburgh, Hosinski idolized the war-hero president, and when rejections from several invitees brought Notre Dame only weeks from June graduation day without a speaker, she suggested to her boss that he invite the president. As Father Hesburgh tells the story, he was reluctant to invite Eisenhower on such short notice but told Hosinski if she would write the letter, he would sign it. She did, he did, and Ike interrupted his West Point reunion to speak at ceremonies where the future Pope Paul VI, Cardinal Giovanni Montini, also received an honorary degree.

President Ford came to campus at Father Hesburgh’s urging 15 years later because both wanted to heal a rift between academe and the White House that had grown wide during the presidency of Richard Nixon. The non-commencement convocation was at 11 a.m. on Saint Patrick’s Day, and the University, noting the historical tradition of the day, took the precaution of asking the Five Corners bars not to open until after the Athletic and Convocation Center event. Wearing a green tie, Ford basked in a warm welcome during a motorcade through the city to campus. It was logistically the most complicated presidential visit because he was on campus for 12 hours, sandwiching in not only the dinner with governors but also a luncheon with college and university presidents, a regional news conference and a reception for faculty.

It was at the reception that Professor Peter Walshe of Government and International Studies attempted to hand Ford a petition. A Secret Service agent quickly intercepted the document. One does not hand the president anything he does not know is coming. And Ford’s visit marked the first appearance of a man in cap and gown on the platform whom no one could recognize in the next day’s photographs. At each commencement, a Secret Service agent is seated behind the president. He rises and he sits, but he never claps, and his eyes are always moving over the audience. The agent has some help on stage in case of trouble — the imported and virtually impenetrable lectern behind which the president speaks is designed as emergency cover.


Ford spoke against a “new isolationism,” but it was President Jimmy Carter in 1977 who touched on foreign policy in a much more controversial manner when he observed, “We are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” The speech was said to have been a meld of a hawkish draft by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and a dovish one by Cyrus Vance of the State Department. Brzezinski came in on the motorcade from the airport but watched the speech on television in the ACC security office, never appearing in public. Carter’s words fit right into the human-rights theme Father Hesburgh had given that year’s commencement, with honorary degrees going to Cardinal Paul Arns of Brazil, Cardinal Stephen Kim of Korea and Bishop Donal Lamont of Rhodesia. It was one of Carter’s most memorable speeches, sticking especially in the craw of conservatives, who considered William F. Buckley’s address to graduates the following year to be a reply in situ.

The mission of the Secret Service is to provide a safe environment for a traveling president, and the mission of the White House staff who advance a presidential visit is to provide one that is politically safe. Ronald Reagan’s two visits illustrate both. No presidential visit was as tense as his May 1981 commencement address, his first foray outside of the capital since the attempt on his life in March of that year. The Thursday before Sunday graduation, there was an attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in Rome. This increased the uneasiness of the Secret Service, whose agents poured onto campus and became the first occupants of newly constructed Pasquerilla East Hall. Currently standard security protocols (such as metal detectors for the audience) were in force for the first time.

Orange Field south of the ACC was designated as a protest area for the Reagan administration’s numerous critics, many of them coming from the Catholic Left and promising to march as families. South Bend area peace officers suggested using a locally available horse patrol to ring Orange Field and ensure that protestors did not move toward the ACC. The potential mix of horses and children alarmed Notre Dame planners, who went quietly to Father Hesburgh. At the Saturday briefing, the lead Secret Service agent detailed security plans. “Horses? What’s this about horses?” queried Father Hesburgh, feigning ignorance. The agent patiently explained. Hesburgh’s brief reply had a note of finality: “No horses.” Thus, the mounted horse patrol spent commencement afternoon out of sight a few blocks from campus, ready only for emergencies.

In contrast to that on Orange Field, the mood in the arena was overwhelmingly warm for a president who was still recovering from his wounds. The loudest and most sustained applause would occur when Reagan embraced fellow honorary degree recipient Pat O’ Brien who had played Knute Rockne to his George Gipp in Knute Rockne: All American. As the two hugged in midstage amid the deafening roar of the audience, O’Brien later reported the president whispered to him, “They must have liked the movie.” But the serious overlay of the afternoon surfaced in a brief private ceremony as President Reagan was leaving the building. He doffed his suit coat to don a Monogram Club sports jacket, and his shirt came out. He was wearing a bullet-proof vest. The Secret Service subsequently collected the negatives of all photographs taken at the event by the University photographer.

Reagan returned in 1988 to dedicate a 22-cent stamp honoring Rockne, a visit his staff viewed as an opportunity to reinforce “The Gipper” image. Unfortunately, the advance team from the White House had a picture of Notre Dame frozen somewhere around the time of the 1940 movie. Could the football team sit together at the stamp event in their uniform jerseys? No, that would contradict the fact that Notre Dame student-athletes are not a breed apart. How about the leprechaun presenting the president with a shillelagh? No, that’s not the wire service photo the University would want.

Rebuffed several times, White House staffers did get the last word. Unbeknownst to Notre Dame planners, they hid a football in the president’s lectern. At one point in his remarks, he threw it into the audience, and it was caught by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, who, thankfully, was not dressed in his football jersey. Reagan was his usual charming self. In words worthy of speechwriter Peggy Noonan, he commented, “Notre Dame stands among the winds of subjectivity for lasting values and principles that are at the heart of our civilization and upon which all human progress is built. If they want to see the goodness and love of life of this generation, the commitment to decency and a better future, let them come here . . . to Notre Dame.”

In between the Reagan commencement and the next presidential address to graduates, the 1982 spring graduation featured Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, one of several foreign heads of states or governments to speak to degree candidates over the years. Trudeau had offended Canadians of Polish extraction by some misguided comment on Lech Walesa, and his advance people were aghast when they learned the University was going to give the Solidarity leader a rare honorary degree in absentia. Not only that, but the camera angle would show the empty chair draped with a Solidarity banner as Trudeau spoke. They tried to get the degree rescinded and then the chair rearranged, neither successfully.

The first President Bush spoke at the Notre Dame commencement in 1992, calling the American family “an institution under siege” and invoking the legendary name of Frank O’Malley, a beloved English professor, and his “blood is in the bricks” description of Notre Dame. Perhaps because it was an election year, President George Herbert Walker Bush became the only occupant of the Oval Office to do individual handshake photos with VIPs. This commencement also saw a reprise of the valedictory as dissenting voice. Eleven years earlier, valedictorian Nancy Haegel ‘81, now a Notre Dame trustee, had been implicitly critical of the Reagan Administration’s policies, and in 1992 Sarah McGrath’s talk took a similar path. Presidents and their staffs accept such situations because they realize universities are places where people think otherwise. But they do like to see speeches ahead of time; no surprises, please.

In contrast to Ike, George W. Bush was invited early — the day after the electoral college declared him the president, to be precise — and he took the opportunity to deliver the first commencement address of his presidency at Notre Dame on May 20. Scheduled twice to campaign on campus during the fall, Bush canceled at the last moment, while vice presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman spoke in Washington Hall for the Democrats. Bush had visited Notre Dame twice over the years for football games and once in 1980 to advance the presidential candidacy of his father at a Mock Republican Convention. As though planned, Carolyn Weir’s valedictory, the president’s talk and Monsignor George Higgins’ Laetare Medal remarks all struck a common chord: service to the poor as an obligation of individuals, churches, corporations and government.

“There is no great society which is not a caring society,” the president said. He later talked about his notion of channeling more public dollars through faith-based organizations that provide social services.

In a holding room before the commencement luncheon, a relaxed President Bush spoke some Spanish to 10-year-old Jorge Andres Muruaga and his parents from Texas. Jorge was chosen by Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) to receive the first Laura Bush Scholarship, to be used for his sixth grade at Saint Mary of Carmel, an ACE school in Dallas. Supplying a Notre Dame presence was National Security Adviser and former trustee Condoleezza Rice ‘75M.A., and Joseph O’Neill ’67, former head of the National Alumni Board, and his wife, Jan. The Midland, Texas, couple introduced President Bush to his wife. The Secret Service lead for the Bush visit was already familiar with the campus — Cornelius Southall ’89, a former Fighting Irish free safety, wore a National Championship ring.

The White House advance team was in good spirits, perhaps because it drew Notre Dame instead of Yale University, where the president faced a problematic reception the next day. They also appreciated the fact that their Notre Dame planning counterparts were well-versed in the detail that goes into every visit of the nation’s chief executive. It is the kind of detail that led one weary Joyce Center staffer to comment after it was all over, “I know my presidential vote in 2004. I don’t want to go through this again in four years.”