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American University's Presidential Past & Present

JFK visits AU.

American University has a rich tradition of presidential visits to campus. As the second installment of a two-part article, the “This Moment in Campus Life History” piece below begins with JFK’s famous speech at Reeves Field. If you missed the first half of the story, click here to read about AU’s early presidential past from Lincoln to Eisenhower.


Contemporary Connection

Fast forward to the 1960’s. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight Eisenhower had already spoken on campus – not to mention Abraham Lincoln had walked the pre-campus grounds an entire century earlier.

John F. Kennedy returned to AU for the second time to speak at the 1963 commencement ceremony. Senator Robert Byrd sat in the audience, ready to receive his Juris Doctorate from American’s Washington College of Law.

“He open[ed] with a joke about how he gets his degree in ten minutes versus his colleague in the senate Robert Byrd who had to go to night classes to get his law degree,” amateur AU historian Marc Tomik explains.

Following the laughs, JFK presented a speech entitled “The Strategy of Peace” – a speech that laid out his policy for the International Test-Ban Treaty on nuclear weapons. You can hear his words at the beginning of Oliver Stone’s film JFK and on archive.org.

Affirming AU’s commitment to global understanding, education, and acceptance, he said, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

Kennedy’s address has left a long-standing connection between the university and the Kennedy family, one that was most recently revisited when Ted Kennedy endorsed then-Senator Barack Obama in a 2008 rally. Obama returned as president in 2010 to the newly dedicated School of International Service, giving a major foreign policy speech that linked back to JFK’s words on peace.

For Tomik, the continued presidential presence on campus says a lot about AU, especially when noting content that speaks to both students and a global audience.

“It says that this is a place where ideas are respected,” he says, “and that it’s a community where they feel comfortable with the message that they’re giving – that this is an appropriate level of prominence and academic background.”

However, as a former student, Tomik feels most proud of the interaction seen in visits like that of President Bill Clinton in 1997, when Student Confederation President Neal Sharma (’98 SPA) met and introduced Clinton before his well-known “Back to Work” speech. Sharma is now a member of the American University Board of Trustees.

“[It’s] the connection to students,” he explains. “This is not only someone giving a policy speech, but the student government president can meet the president. That brings a smile to my face. That’s what it’s about. This is a university, not just a speech platform.”

In total, nine in-office presidents have come to AU so far – ten, if you count Lincoln. That includes neither the handful of visits from former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter nor the frequent vice presidential laps around the track by George Bush senior.

Carter’s decision to issue the Commission on Election Reform report at AU in 2005 brought substantial attention to the university and its Center for Democracy & Election Management. He returned later to hold a town hall-style discussion as well as talk on the Elders Mission to Darfur. Still, it was the extensive time Carter spent in McDowell Hall for the election reform hearings that made him a fixture on campus.

“There were stories of people coming down the elevator from their rooms and running into President Carter,” Tomik tells.

In any case, the university boasts a deep presidential history that extends well beyond signatures and visits. Its history shares a common purpose, a mission. When the White House called for public servants, the School of Public Affairs answered, and when the US looked to foster relationships abroad, the School of International Service came to be.

Whether in Lincoln’s steps, Kennedy’s words, or Clinton’s handshake with a student, AU’s presidential connection will continue, so long as the university remains that great compass, leading students to pursue those things that make the country and world a better place.


Want more AU history? Follow @AUhistory for tweets on the university's colorful past.