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Obama answers Notre Dame hecklers with ‘fair-minded words’

The speech underlined the president's desire to elevate public discourse on issues such as abortion in order to find common ground.

By Staff writer / May 17, 2009

President Obama waved to the crowd before his commencement speech Sunday at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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President Obama used his graduation address at the University of Notre Dame as a teachable moment.

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Mr. Obama did not skirt the matter of the mounting protests here, which objected to the president – who supports abortion rights – addressing a Catholic school. Rather, he made it the central point of his speech, underscoring what has become a bedrock tenet of this administration: a commitment to a more civil and substantive dialogue both here and abroad in an effort to find common ground.

At Notre Dame, he spoke of “fair-minded words.”

It had a direct application to Sunday’s speech. Outside the auditorium, an estimated 100 protesters gathered to decry the president’s positions on abortion and stem-cell research. Inside, four hecklers interrupted proceedings.

Obama responded to them indirectly by recounting an e-mail he received several years ago from a doctor who opposed abortion rights. Taking issue with a comment on Obama’s website that seemingly portrayed all antiabortion activists as rabid ideologues, the doctor wrote: "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words," Obama recounted.

This has been a guiding principle of Obama’s first days in office, whether it be forbearance in the face of anti-US sentiment at the Summit of the Americas or a thaw in relations with Iran, which has tweaked previous administrations with its bombastic rhetoric. Sunday, he charted the same course through America’s “culture wars,” which have increasingly sought to choke his political momentum.

Repeatedly, his goal has been to elevate the public discourse as a means for finding common ground, and in Notre Dame he clearly sensed an opportunity as much as a potential pothole. The same was true amid the firestorm about racially charged comments by Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In response, the candidate Obama delivered his comprehensive address on race in America.

Sunday, Obama acknowledged that there are limits to this approach, for example with regard to abortion. “The fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable,” he said. Heated online discussions before, during, and after, the speech bore witness to that.

Yet some observers have noted that one of the strongest opponents of abortion rights in the world, the Vatican itself, has stayed silent on the issue of Obama’s address. In a May 9 article in The Washington Post, Francis Rocca notes that the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore, “which normally highlights news about the United States, has not published a word about the Notre Dame controversy.”

He adds:

“Commentary from the Vatican, meanwhile, has tended to accentuate the positive, while playing down and even overlooking friction. It started with a papal telegram to celebrate Obama's ‘historic’ election. L'Osservatore hailed the election on its front page as a ‘choice that unites’ proving that America is ‘able to overcome fractures and divisions that until only recently could seem incurable.’”

Politically, the speech could be significant if it affects Obama’s standing among Catholic voters, a key constituency. Before the speech, a poll by Quinnipiac University found that Catholics, in general, supported Notre Dame’s decision to let him speak.

But the margin was narrowest – only 5 percent – among “observant” Catholics who attended religious services about once a week.