Dwight D. Eisenhower photo

Address "Beyond the Campus" Delivered at the Commencement Exercises of the University of Notre Dame.

June 05, 1960

Father Hesburgh, Your Eminence, Your Excellencies, members of the Clergy, members of the Graduating Class and the Trustees, faculty and students, and friends of Notre Dame:

I acknowledge with the deepest gratitude the receipt of the Honorary Doctorate of Notre Dame. And I am overwhelmed by the terminology of the Citation read to me. But I want to say to all of you that as I listened to what was said about Dr. Dooley, that I could not fail to believe that there are few if any men that I know who have equaled his exhibition of courage, self-sacrifice, faith in his God, and his readiness to serve his fellow men.

At Commencement time in our country a generation ago, a well-known Englishman felt an urge to tell us something about ourselves. The theme he selected was, "Why don't young Americans care about politics?"

He felt that the attitude of our young people toward civil government, at all levels, was like that of "the audience at a play."

My simple purpose today is to talk to you these next few minutes about the compelling need for all Americans to interest themselves seriously in politics.

There may be a plausible, if not necessarily a valid, explanation for the American's traditional indifference to politics.

Historically, the 19th Century in America was one of amazing growth. A wilderness needed conquering; vast resources had to be utilized; illiteracy had to be eliminated; a great economic machine, reaching to every corner of the world, had to be built. This unprecedented development commanded extraordinary talents in our private enterprise system. To people busy in productive life, government seemed not only remote but relatively unimportant. The demand for real skills in political pursuits was minimal.

Moreover, in that long period, a view developed that political life was somewhat degrading--that politics was primarily a contest, with the spoils to the victor and the public paying the bill. This belief had some justification at one period in our history, and may still persist in local situations.

In these circumstances, some of our highly talented people have refrained from offering themselves for public service--indeed, often to refuse to enter it.

But times have changed, and the change includes the character of government. The first major platform drafted in 1840 by a political party required only 500 words; in the last national election each major party used over 15,000 words to deal with the highlights of the principal issues. This thirty-fold growth in political platforms is illustrative of the increase of governmental influence over all our lives.

The need for the best talent in positions of political responsibility is not only great, but mounts with each stroke of history's clock.

A few years ago, government represented only a small fraction of the total national activity. Today, to support our national, state and local governments, and to finance our international undertakings, almost one-fourth of the total national income is collected in taxes. In every phase of life, government increasingly affects us--our environment, our opportunities, our health, our education, our general welfare.

Government is, of course, necessary, but it is not the mainspring of progress. In the private sector of American life, commanding as it does the productive efforts of our citizens, is found the true source of our nation's vitality. Government is not of itself a part of our productive machinery. Consequently its size, its growth, its operations can be justified only by demonstrated need. If too dominant, if too large, its effect is both burdensome and stifling.

Only an informed and alert citizenry can make the necessary judgments as to the character and degree of that need.

We do not want a government with a philosophy of incessant meddling, which imposes a smothering mist on the sparks of initiative.

We do not want a government that permits every noisy group to force upon society an endless string of higher subsidies that solve nothing and undermine the collective good of the nation.

We do not want governmental programs which, advanced, often falsely, in the guise of promoting the general welfare destroy in the individual those priceless qualities of self-dependence, self-confidence, and a readiness to risk his judgment against the trends of the crowd.

We do want a government that assures the security and general welfare of the nation and its people in concord with the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln, who insisted that government should do, and do only, the things which people cannot well do for themselves.

This concept is particularly relevant to most activities encompassed by the phrase "the general welfare."

But even with devotion to the principle that governmental functions can be justified only by public need, government has become so pervasive that its decisions inescapably help shape the future of every individual, every group, every region, every institution.

Though we recognize this vast change--and though most persons in public office are selfless, devoted people--we are still plagued by yesterday's concept of politics and politicians.

Too many of our ablest citizens draw back, evidently fearful of being sullied in the broiling activity of partisan affairs.

This must change. We need intelligent, creative, steady political leadership as at no time before in our history. There must be more talent in government--the best our nation affords. We need it in county, city, state--and in Washington.

Human progress in freedom is not merely something inscribed upon a tablet--not a matter to be shrugged off as a worry for others. Progress in freedom demands from each citizen a daily exercise of the will and the spirit--a fierce faith; it must not be stagnated by a philosophy of collectivity that seeks personal security as a prime objective.

Clearly, you--you graduates who enjoy the blessings of higher education have a special responsibility to exercise leadership in helping others understand these problems.

And, by no means, does your responsibility stop there. To serve the nation well you must, for example, help seek out able candidates for office and persuade them to offer themselves to the electorate. To be most effective you should become active in a political party, and in civic and professional organizations. You should undertake, according to your own intelligently formed convictions, a personal crusade to help the political life of the nation soar as high as human wisdom can make it.

Now some of you will become doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergymen, businessmen. Each of you will contribute to the national welfare, as well as to personal and family welfare, by doing well and honorably whatever you undertake. But a specialist, regardless of professional skill and standing, cannot fulfill the exacting requirements of modern citizenship unless he dedicates himself also to raising the political standards of the body politic.

Now I hope that some of you will enter the public service, either in elective, career, or appointive office. Most of the top posts in government involve manifold questions of policy. In these positions we have a special need for intelligent, educated, selfless persons from all walks of life.

I believe that each of you should, if called, be willing to devote one block of your life to government service.

This does not mean that you need become permanently implanted in government. Quite the contrary. In policy-forming positions we constantly need expert knowledge and fresh points of view. Some frequency of withdrawal and return to private life would help eliminate the dangerous concept that permanence in office is more important than the rightness of decision. Contrariwise, such a tour should not be so brief as to minimize the value of the contribution and diminish the quality of public service. Normally, a four-year period in these policy posts would seem to be a minimum. Most leaders from private life who enter the public service do so at a substantial sacrifice in the earning power of their productive years.

Although these personal sacrifices are, by most individuals, accepted as a condition of service, yet when these sacrifices become so great as to be unendurable from the family standpoint, we find another cause for the loss of talent in government.

We ought not to make it inordinately difficult for a man to undertake a public post and then to return to his own vocation. In government one must obviously have no selfish end to serve, but citizens should not, variably, be required to divest themselves of investments accumulated over a lifetime in order to qualify for public office. The basic question to be determined in each case is this--is such divestment necessary to remove any likelihood that the probity and objectivity of his governmental decisions will be affected? And this question is proper and ethical whether the individual holds either elective or appointive office. We need to review carefully the conflict-of-interest restrictions which have often prohibited the entry into government of men and women who had much to offer their country.

But let me return to the more broadly-based consideration: that thinking Americans in all walks of life must constantly add to their own knowledge and help build a more enlightened electorate and public opinion. For herein lies the success of all government policy and action in a free society.

Leaders in America--and this comprehends all who have a capacity to influence others--must develop a keen understanding of current issues, foreign and domestic--and of political party organization, platform, and operations.

They must have critical judgments regarding actions being proposed or taken by legislatures and executives at all levels of government. They need to be knowledgeable so as not to be misled by catchwords or doctrinaire slogans.

Thus they can analyze objectively how such actions may affect them, their communities, and their country--and help others to a similar understanding.

Political understanding, widely fostered, will compel government to develop national and international programs truly for the general good, and to refrain from doing those things that unduly favor special groups or impinge upon the citizen's own responsibility, self-dependence, and opportunities.

Graduates of the Class of 1960: a half century ago, when I was about to enter West Point--and, incidentally, to meet shortly thereafter and to know that gridiron genius, Knute Rockne--our country was in what now seems to have been a different era. The annual Federal budget was below seven hundred million dollars. Today it has increased more than one hundredfold, and organized groups demand more and more services, both expensive and expansive. At the turn of the century there was a certain grace, calmness, and courtliness about human deportment and the movement of events.

Now we operate on a relentless timetable which we must race to keep events from overwhelming us.

Complicating the lives of all of us today we know that in the dimly-lit regions behind the Iron Curtain, eight hundred million people are denied the uncountable blessings of progress in freedom, and compelled by their masters to develop vast means of destructive power. Elsewhere, among the underdeveloped countries of the world, a billion people look to America as a beacon that confidently lights the path to human progress in freedom.

This is no time to whimper, complain, or fret about helping other peoples, if we really intend that freedom shall emerge triumphant over tyranny.

The enemies of human dignity lurk in a thousand places--in governments that have become spiritual wastelands, and in leaders that brandish angry epithets, slogans, and satellites. But equally certain it is that freedom is imperiled where peoples, worshipping material success, have become emptied of idealism. Peace with justice cannot be attained by peoples where opulence has dulled the spirit--where indifference ignores moral and political responsibility.

Too often there is, in politics as in religion, a familiar pattern of the few willing workers and the large number of passive observers.

Our society can no longer tolerate such delinquency.

We must insist that our educated young men and women--our future leaders--willingly, joyously play a pivotal part in the endless adventure of free government. The vital issues of freedom or regimentation, public or private control of productive resources, a religiously-inspired or an atheistic society, a healthy economy or depression, peace or war--these are the substance of political decisions and actions that you young people must be ready to participate in. Neglect by citizens of civic responsibilities will be a greater danger to a free America than any foreign threat can ever pose; but an enlightened, dedicated people, studiously and energetically performing their political duties will insure us a future of ever-rising standards of spiritual, cultural and material strength. These duties and these opportunities must demand the dedicated attention of all the people, and especially all who have so profoundly benefited from our vast educational system.

My heartiest congratulations on this splendid preparation that the members of this Graduating Class have received for exercising the leadership which this great Republic must have as it faces the problems, the trials and the bright opportunities of the future.

Thank you--and may God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:05 p.m. on a platform erected in front of O'Shaughnessy Hall. His opening words "Father Hesburgh, Your Eminence" referred to the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame, and Giovanni Battista Cardinal Montini, Archbishop of Milan. He later referred to Dr. Thomas A. Dooley, cofounder of the Medico organization in northern Laos.

The citation accompanying the honorary degree called the President "the most eminent and most popular statesman of his time."

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address "Beyond the Campus" Delivered at the Commencement Exercises of the University of Notre Dame. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/234588

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