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Obama's Sin of Omission

By Jon Keller

That was a fine speech Barack Obama gave at the Wesleyan commencement Sunday. In fitting tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy's long tenure in the Senate, Obama chose service to country as his topic. He cited the social and political activists of the 1960s - singling out Peace Corps volunteers and civil rights demonstrators - as early role models. And he told the graduates of the two stories that will command their attention as adults:

"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."

Obama then told the inspirational tale of his own journey from indifferent middle-class teenager to socially-aware college student to community organizer (a considerable sacrifice: "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) to state senator, US senator, next stop, the White House. Do the same, he urged the grads, "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."

And there are so many ways to serve your country, Obama noted:

"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.

At a time when our ice caps are melting and our oceans are rising, we need you to help lead a green revolution. We still have time to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change if we get serious about investing in renewable sources of energy, and if we get a generation of volunteers to work on renewable energy projects, and teach folks about conservation, and help clean up polluted areas; if we send talented engineers and scientists abroad to help developing countries promote clean energy.

At a time when a child in Boston must compete with children in Beijing and Bangalore, we need an army of you to become teachers and principals in schools that this nation cannot afford to give up on. I will pay our educators what they deserve, and give them more support, but I will also ask more of them to be mentors to other teachers, and serve in high-need schools and high-need subject areas like math and science.

At a time when there are children in the city of New Orleans who still spend each night in a lonely trailer, we need more of you to take a weekend or a week off from work, and head down South, and help rebuild. If you can't get the time, volunteer at the local homeless shelter or soup kitchen in your own community. Find an organization that's fighting poverty, or a candidate who promotes policies you believe in, and find a way to help them."

By all accounts, the speech was a hit. "I was shaking, I was so moved by what he said," one young women told the Globe.

So I guess it's just me wondering -- how on earth do you give a speech on that topic and not mention our country's most widespread and important form of public service and sacrifice, military service?

Maybe Obama didn't want to go there because of the unfortunate political contrast between himself and John McCain when it comes to military service and knowledge, an unflattering comparison that left Obama on the short end of a recent political exchange over veterans' benefits. Or maybe the senator - for reasons I can't fathom - didn't think of Wesleyan students as the type who might consider serving their country this way. Or maybe military service simply doesn't spring to mind for Obama or his handlers when they think of laudable sacrifice and contribution to the public good. And maybe that's what a justifiably war-weary electorate wants come November, a commander-in-chief who doesn't have the military on his cultural radar. Or maybe they're not quite so moved by such self-indulgent narcissism, and are shaking over Obama's speech for different reasons.

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large