President Barack Obama will be the first sitting president to speak at Rutgers’ commencement, but several presidents have visited the university community – from candidates making campaign stops to chief executives announcing major policy initiatives.
President Bill Clinton chose Rutgers to announce the establishment of AmeriCorps on March 2, 1993. Speaking to what The New York Times called “a wildly enthusiastic Rutgers University audience” at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the president called on young people to answer the call to public service in the same spirit as an earlier generation joined the Peace Corps – founded on the same day, 32 years earlier.
This past November, President Obama convened a roundtable discussion at Rutgers University-Newark on criminal justice reform.
“Presidents often speak at universities, especially during commencement season, to announce a policy initiative, or to boost a local political ally, or to make some sort of political point,” says David Greenberg, associate professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences and journalism and media studies in the School of Communication and Information. “In the last 15 years or so deciding which school to visit has become a really big deal at the White House, with a ton of invitations to consider. Fifty years ago, a president could take the handful of invitations and say, ‘Okay, I think I’ll go to Yale this year.’”
President Obama will be the seventh president – and the second sitting president – to receive an honorary Rutgers degree. Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan were both secretaries of state when receiving the honor in 1829 and 1849, respectively. Woodrow Wilson was a professor and soon to be president of Princeton University when he received his degree here in 1902. Herbert Hoover, fresh from organizing food aid to a Europe ravaged by World War I – and having been named one of the 10 most influential Americans by The New York Times – received his honorary degree in 1920.
Speaking during commencement week at an alumni dinner, Hoover condemned war and urged peace. He would return to Rutgers in 1940, a deeply unpopular ex-president, to urge 3,000 students in the College Avenue Gym to keep America out of World War II.
Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t be physically present to receive his degree in 1933, but he managed to be present telephonically. According to newspaper reports, the president telephoned Rutgers President Robert C. Clothier after the commencement ceremony already had begun, and asked to dictate his acceptance to someone. Clothier recruited Catherine Dewhurst, a secretary in the Department of Athletics, for the job. “It was all very thrilling,” Dewhurst told the New Brunswick Daily Home News several years later. “… I’ll bet I’m the only secretary in New Brunswick who ever took dictation directly from the president of the United States.”
Clothier presented an honorary degree to Dwight Eisenhower in 1948 when the former supreme allied commander and future president was president of Columbia University. After hearing Clothier praise him as “probably the most revered American of his day,” and recalling that he had made his collegiate football debut against Rutgers in 1912 (Army won, 19-0), Eisenhower adopted a somber tone. “I think it’s no exaggeration to say that democracy as we know it is facing its decade, probably its quarter century, of greatest trial, certainly of its greatest trial since the days of our own war between the states,” he said.
Several presidents attracted big crowds as they passed through the Rutgers community.
Wilson, running for governor in 1910, walked through New Brunswick and was honored by Rutgers students who modified their football cheer to honor him.
John F. Kennedy, campaigning for president, spoke from the steps of the Middlesex County Courthouse on Sept. 16, 1960. The Rutgers Targum reported that about 6,000 people heard Kennedy say, “For six years, I represented Middlesex County, Massachusetts, in the Congress. Now, I would like to represent Middlesex County, New Jersey, in the White House.”
President George H.W. Bush landed in his Marine One helicopter at Antilles Field on Douglass Campus on Sept. 25, 1991, on his way to a Republican fundraiser in East Brunswick. He stopped briefly to acknowledge one of his “points of light” – Rutgers senior Roxanne Black, who, diagnosed with lupus at 15, had organized a national pen-pal support network for people fighting the disease.
On May 24, 1912, President William Howard Taft, campaigning for re-election in New Brunswick’s Monument Square, was cheered by Rutgers students and felt compelled to return the courtesy with some kind of Rutgers reference. The best he could do was to praise the long-dead alumnus and associate Supreme Court justice Joseph P. Bradley as “among the greatest jurists this country has produced.”
The very next day, Theodore Roosevelt, trying to take the Republican nomination from his old friend Taft, spoke on the same spot to thousands of people. Gov. Edward Stokes introduced the former president, and reminded the crowd that Roosevelt, in 1891, had been considered for the presidency of Rutgers. Austin Scott got the job, instead, which was fine with Stokes, who suggested that Providence had managed that result to save Roosevelt for bigger things. Rutgers students in the crowd cheered, and Roosevelt flashed his famous grin and said, “I recognize the symptoms of higher learning.”
But perhaps no two presidential visits encompass greater contrasts than those of Abraham Lincoln. The train carrying Lincoln to his inauguration on Feb. 21, 1861 stopped in New Brunswick long enough to change locomotives, and the president-elect spoke briefly to a crowd of students (the station was across Somerset Street from the college gates) and citizens. According to the New BrunswickFredonian, Lincoln said that he “did not appear before them to make a speech, because he had none to make, and didn’t know that it would be proper to make a speech, even if he had one and the disposition to make it.”
Stephen R. Fiske, a New York Herald reporter covering Lincoln’s trip, had been expelled from Rutgers a year earlier, and drew a rousing cheer from his classmates. “Is this your reception, or mine?” the president-elect is said to have asked. (Fiske later re-matriculated and graduated from Rutgers.)
Four years later, Lincoln’s funeral train passed through the same station, very slowly, in the opposite direction.