No honorary degree? No problem

The president speaks at Arizona State University, which was seen as having snubbed him by deciding not to award him a degree.

Published May 14, 2009 2:25PM (EDT)

President Obama spoke at Arizona State University's commencement Wednesday night -- but he didn't get much out of it. Sure, he got a scholarship program named in his honor, but he'll never be able to say he has a degree from ASU. The school didn't award him one, on the grounds, one spokeswoman said, that "his body of work is yet to come."

In his speech, though, the president maintained a sense of humor about the whole thing, only threatening the university's administration with an audit by the IRS once. Instead, he (or, let's be honest, his speechwriters) used the controversy over the degree to best advantage, turning it into a call for graduating students to keep achieving:

Now, before I begin, I'd just like to clear the air about that little controversy everybody was talking about a few weeks back. I have to tell you, I really thought this was much ado about nothing, but I do think we all learned an important lesson. I learned never again to pick another team over the Sun Devils in my NCAA bracket. It won't happen again. President Crow and the Board of Regents will soon learn all about being audited by the IRS.

Now, in all seriousness, I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. First of all, Michelle concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home. But more than that, I come to embrace the notion that I haven't done enough in my life; I heartily concur; I come to affirm that one's title, even a title like President of the United States, says very little about how well one's life has been led -- that no matter how much you've done, or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.

And I want to say to you today, graduates, Class of 2009, that despite having achieved a remarkable milestone in your life, despite the fact that you and your families are so rightfully proud, you too cannot rest on your laurels. Not even some of those remarkable young people who were introduced earlier -- not even that young lady who's got four degrees yet today. You can't rest. Your own body of work is also yet to come.

Expect the real fireworks to come later, when Obama speaks at Notre Dame -- that school is giving him an honorary degree, and some Catholics (like Alan Keyes and Randall Terry) plan to protest the decision.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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