In his latest column for The New York Times, Bill Kristol dissects Barack Obama’s recent commencement address at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. In terms of his delivery, Mr. Kristol writes, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee hit a home run. But in terms of content, Mr. Obama’s ode to public service left something to be desired.
Obama chooses to introduce the notion of public service from an autobiographical point of view. In college, he explains, “I began to notice a world beyond myself.” So while his friends were seeking jobs on Wall Street, he applied for jobs as a grass-roots activist. And one day, a group of churches in Chicago offered him a job as a community organizer for “$12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.”
“And I said yes.”
More striking is Obama’s sin of omission. In the rest of the speech, he goes on to detail — at some length — the “so many ways to serve” that are available “at this defining moment in our history.” There’s the Peace Corps, there’s renewable energy, there’s education, there’s poverty — there are all kinds of causes you can take up “should you take the path of service.”
But there’s one obvious path of service Obama doesn’t recommend — or even mention: military service. He does mention war twice: “At a time of war, we need you to work for peace.” And, we face “big challenges like war and recession.” But there’s nothing about serving your country in uniform.
But we would describe it as an error of commission, rather than omission. You see, Mr. Obama has made similar remarks in the past. In fact, we wrote about his description of public service a few months ago. As in the commencement speech, Senator Obama failed to mention military service as a laudable way to serve your country.
Not that we’re surprised. Obama’s experience with the U.S. military is cursory, at best. He attended two universities—Columbia and Harvard—where ROTC is not allowed on campus. Students preparing for a military career must attend ROTC classes at other schools.
In the case of Harvard, it means a two-mile drive to the MIT campus. For ROTC cadets at Columbia, it’s at least a four mile trip to Manhattan College, or other local institutions that allow the military on campus.
A two or four-mile trip may not sound like much. But making that commute in city traffic is no picnic. And, as far as we know, neither Harvard nor Columbia offers a free shuttle for its ROTC students. That’s about what you’d expect from Ivy League schools that loathe the prospect of on-campus military presence, but still gladly accept DoD research dollars.
And, it’s about what you’d expect from one of their most famous grads, who can’t equate public service with a military uniform.
I would also like to see Senator Obama endorse military service; I think that much of what he proposes, though, is an ROTC-equivalent for pacifist civilians or others who find the military distasteful (think Starship Troopers, the book). Mentioning the military in that context is likely to turn off his audience.
As for our beleaguered cross-town cadets, I imagine the Harvard cadets probably do a formation run / march across town if it's only two miles. The New Yorkers probably take the subway. My cross-town experience was a 40-mile drive, twice a week, and the University provided a van that I could drive. I used our van to pick up other local cadets whose schools did not provide shuttle service.
The hurdles are administrative, but a motivated ROTC cadet could establish a "military history" student group, enroll in military history classes (and leadership classes) across town at MIT, and then reserve a student union van every week. The number of similar administrative zig-zags I performed during my four years of college were some of the best training exercises for the DC portion of my military career.
Yes, it sucks that the schools aren't extending any courtesy or effort on behalf of the cadets, and it would be nice if everyone supported our military members, but as long as the military retains its (outdated and bigoted) stance on gays serving openly, I think Harvard is well within its rights to shun them.
J.R.--I agree with your points. However, I would only ask that Harvard be consistent. If you're going to deny a place for ROTC on campus, then stop taking defense research funding. You can't have it both ways.
Do not forget where he retains tenure: The University of Chicago. Similar to its Ivy peers, militant liberalism forced the ROTC off campus. To get to the ROTC at IIT (the closest) from the U of C one must traverse three miles of some of the most notoriously violent project neighborhoods in the US.
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