Presidential hopefuls Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz., may share more disparities than similarities - in age, party affiliation, and their views on the war in Iraq - but the two candidates do have one thing in common: Both donned a purple gown to deliver commencement speeches at Northwestern and received honorary doctorates from the university.
The U.S. senators are the only two 2008 presidential candidates, though not the only politicians, to have addressed the graduating class at Ryan Field: Obama in 2006 and McCain in 2005. Only four presidential contenders have received honorary degrees since 1951, making this year's race the first that might pit two honorary graduates against each other.
"It is not unusual to give honorary degrees to public servants," said Associate Provost John Margolis, coordinator of the honorary degree process. "These were two people who distinguished themselves as public servants."
At commencement, both candidates spoke on subjects that would later be reflected in their campaigns.
In 2006, Obama emphasized the need for America, and students, to take risks and be more purposeful in order to bring change. McCain, in 2005, stressed the importance of the nation's role in protecting security interests abroad and promoting democracy - a theme that resonates with his current push for a worldwide League of Democracies.
A 1958 Naval Academy graduate who served during the Vietnam War, McCain focused his speech on U.S. foreign policy and spoke of the moral responsibility of protecting human rights around the world.
"While human rights will never constitute the sum total of our foreign policy; We fail ourselves as Americans if we do not consider how our actions - or our failure to act - impact those who are as yet unblessed with our freedoms," McCain said.
Obama spoke in even, measured tones, in an easygoing manner, pausing between powerful statements to take in applause and engage the audience.
Support for Obama's presidential campaign comes largely from younger voters, and he made it a point to connect with the crowd of young adults at the commencement, including responding to a column in The Daily.
"According to the article I should be better than John McCain, but not so good that I have to spend the day with Jerry Falwell," Obama said, shortly before the crowd broke into laughter.
Unlike McCain, Obama, who gained national attention for his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, focused not on politics, but instead on personal responsibility.
"You will be tested by the challenges of this new century, and at times you will fail," Obama told the graduates in 2006. "But know that you have it within your power to try. That generations who have come before you faced these same fears and uncertainties in their own time. And that if we're willing to shoulder each other's burdens, to take great risks, and to persevere through trial, America will continue on its magnificent journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day."
Both candidates spoke of bringing change to the world and using the graduates' educations and diplomas to make a difference in the future.
"The world is about to become your responsibility," McCain said. "Even if you are never elected to any office, never meet a foreign policy professional, never scour the pages of The Economist and Foreign Affairs, a responsibility remains."
The two candidates received invitations for honorary degrees prior to being asked to speak at the 147th and 148th commencements. The university must grant an honorary degree to a person before he or she is invited to serve as a commencement speaker, Margolis said.
The process of awarding honorary degrees begins each sprig with solicitations for nominations, sought by a faculty Committee on Honorary Degrees comprised of senior faculty members representing a majority of the university's schools. The committee then reviews the nominations following specific criteria, including the guideline that "the university should be careful that the awarding of a degree not be politically motivated or appear to be so."
"It is clear that we would not give an honorary degree to a presidential candidate in an election year," Margolis said. "But that does not mean that we will never give an honorary degree to someone in a political election."
When they spoke to graduates, both candidates were significant players in national politics: McCain had sought the Republican Party's nomination in 2000; Obama, though still a freshman senator, had been mentioned as a prospective future presidential candidate.
After the Committee on Honorary Degrees reviews the nominations, the University Senate reviews and votes on the recommendations sent forth by the faculty committee. Finally, the University's Board of Trustees must approve the decision before invitations are sent to the selected persons.
Past recipients include scholars, artists, actors, writers, musicians, politicians and social leaders.
"It contributes to the atmosphere of higher education," Communication sophomore Alex Hunstein said. "Having someone who is obviously well-educated and well-respected by the public come to speak at our university just bodes well for the future of our graduates."
The honorary degree itself is a recognition by the university and a desire of the school to recognize the achievements of a person who has distinguished him or herself professionally, according to Margolis.
"They often might (use it as a credential)," Margolis said. "I can tell you that Obama and McCain certainly don't need to."
Former politicians receiving honorary degrees from Northwestern include Richard Gephardt, former House Majority Leader, and former U.S. Rep. George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. Both had previously earned degrees as NU students.
Though both speeches avoided partisan politics, the candidates' themes have returned this year in their campaigns.
Parts of Obama's speech sound like a rehearsal for his campaign speeches today, in which he calls on students to be more politically involved and speaks of the need for change in America.
"The choice is yours," Obama told the graduates in 2006. "Will the years pass with barely a whisper from your generation? Or will we look back on this time as the moment where you took a stand and changed the world?"
© 2008 Daily Northwestern via U-WIRE