This Memorial Day Sunday, Barack Obama did what he described as “pinch-hitting” for one of his personal heroes, Senator Edward Kennedy. From many accounts, Obama’s commencement address at Wesleyan College was rousing and inspiring. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt was there and wrote on a listserv, “he was really excellent. … the college opened graduation to outsiders — LOTS of people, black and white, came from the area to hear him. My daughter, a junior, said she found it inspiring. she not very political, so that is a high compliment.” What an antidote to Sunday night’s HBO special, “Recount” –with scenes bringing back memories of Florida’s slithery Secretary of State Katherine Harris –and other GOP thugs–stealing away our democracy. Remember Justice Antonin Scalia’s three word sneer, “Get Over It.” Those were words the Justice invoked in defending the stealing of the 2000 election. So, this May 25th, 2008, we had two Americas at work: One on our tv screens–a docudrama (more drama than docu) about the selection of a President; the other, a real-life drama with Senator Barack Obama standing in one for one of America’s greatest Senators, speaking to students and calling them, and all of us, to our better angels, with determined idealism and grounded pragmatism. You choose. Thugocracy or Democracy.

Here are remarks of Senator Barack Obama

Wesleyan University Commencement

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Middletown, CT

Thank you, President Roth, for that generous introduction, and congratulations on your first year at the helm of Wesleyan. Congratulations also to the class of 2008, and thank you for allowing me to be a part of your graduation.

I have the distinct honor today of pinch-hitting for one of my personal heroes and a hero to this country, Senator Edward Kennedy. Teddy wanted to be here very much, but as you know, he’s had a very long week and is taking some much-needed rest. He called me up a few days ago and I said that I’d be happy to be his stand-in, even if there was no way I could fill his shoes.

I did, however, get the chance to glance at the speech he planned on delivering today, and I’d like to start by passing along a message from him: “To all those praying for my return to good health, I offer my heartfelt thanks. And to any who’d rather have a different result, I say, don’t get your hopes up just yet!”

So we know that Ted Kennedy’s legendary sense of humor is as strong as ever, and I have no doubt that his equally legendary fighting spirit will carry him through this latest challenge. He is our friend, he is our champion, and we hope and pray for his return to good health.

The topic of his speech today was common for a commencement, but one that nobody could discuss with more authority or inspiration than Ted Kennedy. And that is the topic of service to one’s country – a cause that is synonymous with his family’s name and their legacy.

I was born the year that his brother John called a generation of Americans to ask their country what they could do. And I came of age at a time when they did it. They were the Peace Corps volunteers who won a generation of goodwill toward America at a time when America’s ideals were challenged. They were the teenagers and college students, not much older than you, who watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on their television sets; who saw the dogs and the fire hoses and the footage of marchers beaten within an inch or their lives; who knew it was probably smarter and safer to stay at home, but still decided to take those Freedom Rides down south – who still decided to march. And because they did, they changed the world.

I bring this up because today, you are about to enter a world that makes it easy to get caught up in the notion that there are actually two different stories at work in our lives.

The first is the story of our everyday cares and concerns – the responsibilities we have to our jobs and our families – the bustle and busyness of what happens in our own life. And the second is the story of what happens in the life of our country – of what happens in the wider world. It’s the story you see when you catch a glimpse of the day’s headlines or turn on the news at night – a story of big challenges like war and recession; hunger and climate change; injustice and inequality. It’s a story that can sometimes seem distant and separate from our own – a destiny to be shaped by forces beyond our control.

And yet, the history of this nation tells us this isn’t so. It tells us that we are a people whose destiny has never been written for us, but by us – by generations of men and women, young and old, who have always believed that their story and the American story are not separate, but shared. And for more than two centuries, they have served this country in ways that have forever enriched both.

I say this to you as someone who couldn’t be standing here today if not for the service of others, and wouldn’t be standing here today if not for the purpose that service gave my own life.

You see, I spent much of my childhood adrift. My father left my mother and I when I was two. When my mother remarried, I lived in Indonesia for a time, but was mostly raised in Hawaii by her and my grandparents from Kansas. My teenage years were filled with more than the usual dose of adolescent rebellion, and I’ll admit that I didn’t always take myself or my studies very seriously. I realize that none of you can probably relate to this, but there were many times when I wasn’t sure where I was going, or what I would do.

But during my first two years of college, perhaps because the values my mother had taught me –hard work, honesty, empathy – had resurfaced after a long hibernation; or perhaps because of the example of wonderful teachers and lasting friends, I began to notice a world beyond myself. I became active in the movement to oppose the apartheid regime of South Africa. I began following the debates in this country about poverty and health care. So that by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with a crazy idea – that I would work at a grassroots level to bring about change.

I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings. My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.

And I said yes.

Now, I didn’t know a soul in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure what this community organizing business was all about. I had always been inspired by stories of the Civil Rights Movement and JFK’s call to service, but when I got to the South Side, there were no marches, and no soaring speeches. In the shadow of an empty steel plant, there were just a lot of folks who were struggling. And we didn’t get very far at first.

I still remember one of the very first meetings we put together to discuss gang violence with a group of community leaders. We waited and waited for people to show up, and finally, a group of older people walked into the hall. And they sat down. And a little old lady raised her hand and asked, “Is this where the bingo game is?”

It wasn’t easy, but eventually, we made progress. Day by day, block by block, we brought the community together, and registered new voters, and set up after school programs, and fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity.

But I also began to realize that I wasn’t just helping other people. Through service, I found a community that embraced me; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I’d been seeking. Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America.

Each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say “chance” because you won’t have to take it. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should by. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live your life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America’s.

But I hope you don’t. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, though you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all those who helped you get here, though you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. Because thinking only about yourself, fulfilling your immediate wants and needs, betrays a poverty of ambition. Because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role you’ll play in writing the next great chapter in America’s story

There are so many ways to serve and so much need at this defining moment in our history. You don’t have to be a community organizer or do something crazy like run for President. Right here at Wesleyan, many of you have already volunteered at local schools, contributed to United Way, and even started a program that brings fresh produce to needy families in the area. One hundred and sixty-four graduates of this school have joined the Peace Corps since 2001, and I’m especially proud that two of you are about to leave for my father’s homeland of Kenya to bring alternative sources of energy to impoverished areas.

I ask you to seek these opportunities when you leave here, because the future of this country – your future – depends on it. At a time when our security and moral standing depend on winning hearts and minds in the forgotten corners of this world, we need more of you to serve abroad. As President, I intend to grow the Foreign Service, double the Peace Corps over the next few years, and engage the young people of other nations in similar programs, so that we work side by side to take on the common challenges that confront all humanity.

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