Barbara Bush Wellesley College Commencement Speech

Speech Analysis by Kellyn Muller

25 February 2008
TO BE THE “other half” of the President to the United States holds an interesting amount of responsibility, influence, and confidence. Just as every President approaches his job differently, every First Lady views her position in a different way. Barbara Bush is one such example of a First Lady whose personality and history uniquely influenced her time in the White House. Although she may not go down in history as America’s favorite First Lady, she will nonetheless be remembered in her own right. In particular, a group of Wellesley college graduates from 1990 will forever remember her as giving one of the most memorable speeches they have ever heard.

Barbara Bush may not be known for her eloquent speaking abilities or for her authority as an individual outside of her husband, but the commencement address she gave at Wellesley College might have proven otherwise. To better illustrate the impact of Bush’s Wellesley College commencement address; this paper will unpack Bush’s personal history, the context of her address, and the literary and spoken devices that set her speech apart as an inspirational moment in time.
Bush’s childhood seems familiar to anyone else growing up at the same time. She had brothers and sisters, went to boarding school, was an active youth, loved her parents, met a young man and got married quickly because of the war (that young man just happened to be the future President of the United States). However, some interesting facts about Bush include a love for reading as well as a strong athletic ability, dropping out of college, birthing six children, loosing a young child to leukemia, and moving her family over 30 times in their life together.

All of these aspects of Bush’s life set her up to be the First Lady that she was (National First Ladies Library). Specifically, during Bush’s time in the White House, both as the Second as well as the First Lady, Bush made a decision to promote literacy as her “special cause” (The White House). Bush’s position on literacy most likely stemmed from her childhood where she developed a love for reading early on as a result of her father being the publisher of a woman’s magazine. In addition to Bush’s efforts to combat illiteracy, Bush pushed for family values and family centeredness. Clearly, Bush believes literacy and family centeredness will change the world for the better.
For the Wellesley College 1990 commencement address, First Lady Barbara Bush was runner up. It seems strange to think that the First Lady of the White House would be second place for anything, let alone a disappointing second place. As it turned out, many students were displeased not only because their first choice, Alice Walker, could not give the address, but because the actual speaker would be Bush. Apparently, many of the students felt Bush was not a proper role model for a women’s college. They felt as though Bush was not the career oriented woman the Wellesley College graduates were aspiring to be and that she was asked to give the address merely because she was the wife of an important man. One-forth of the graduating class went so far in their displeasure to protest against Bush speaking (Choices and Change).

Nonetheless, Bush remained the commencement speaker for the event and there is no doubt that those who went into the event protesting Bush most likely left the event pleased with the speech. In addition to the controversy surrounding the commencement speaker choice, Bush added to the excitement by asking Mrs. Gorbachev, wife to the Soviet President at the time, to attend the event and speak as well. Some would say inviting Mrs. Gorbachev ended up helping Bush and in the long run, despite the controversy, Bush delivered the best possible speech for the time, place, and occasion (National First Ladies Biography).
Understandably, the inspirational aspect of Bush’s address had more to do with the literary and spoken devices used throughout the speech and less to do with who she was as an individual. Although the credibility of the speaker is often quite important, Bush had to work against the negative views of her held by the audience. She did this by using the one tool she had at her disposal, the art of public speaking. Interestingly, the one area of Bush’s life that would seem to create authority in the minds of an audience is the one area that worked against her, being the Presidents wife.

However, Bush was able to turn the negativity around and use the opposite results for her advantage. Being aware of the context and the controversy surrounding her speech allowed Bush to address the issues in a humorous yet intelligent way, thus gaining the respect of those critical listeners in the audience. The worst way for Bush to approach her speech would have been to ignore the issue at hand while trying to convince her audience she has something worth while to share with them. Bush was wise enough to validate her audience’s concerns while simultaneously showing her audience that she holds many of the same concerns. More specifically, Bush challenged her audience to experience life as more than just a professional woman as well as more than just a wife and mother. Bush desired for the graduates to go through life valuing all aspects of adulthood combining the profession world with the relational world.
In addition to the way in which Bush addressed the concerns of her audience, it is important to observe the organization and outline of her speech. Due to the nature of commencement speeches, it could be argued that Bush’s speech falls under the Chronological pattern of organization. Usually, commencement speeches look at the past, present, and future, discussing how far the graduates have come, the excitement of the present moment, and provide a challenge for their future.

Bush’s address follows a similar pattern. Within the first minute of her speech, Bush discusses past speeches, old traditions, and experiences that happened ten years previous. Bush then moves on to talk about that particular day and the differences between her and Alice Walker. Finally, Bush spends the rest of her speech unpacking the heart of her message which focuses on the graduates futures. She provides her listeners with three choices and a suggestion to change a current tradition.
Other aspects of Bush’s speech that distinguish her address as superior involve her use of classical proofs, values, oral pictures, and repetition. First, the classical proof Bush focuses on for her speech would be pathos, as shown early on when she states that Wellesley “… is not just a place, but and idea, and experiment in excellence in which diversity is not just tolerated, but is embraced.” Graduates in Bush’s audience want to hear that they just graduated from a school they can be proud of and therefore proud of themselves for actually graduating from such a school.

Second, Bush speaks to common values and builds a bond of unity between herself and the audience. This is accomplished throughout the speech as Bush addresses ideas such as diversity, identity, joy, and cherishing relationships. Generally speaking, those women graduating from Wellesley would have been able to identify and reflect on the values Bush weaved throughout her speech. Third, Bush took advantage of story telling to enhance her speech. Although her stories were brief, they add just enough personal flavor to her speech where if she removed the stories the speech it would have an entirely different feel. Finally, Bush uses repetition as a means of audibly enhancing her speech instead of merely relying on the content and meaning of her words.

For the most part, she uses simple repetition where the same words or phrases appear more than twice. For instance, toward the end of her speech Bush challenges her listeners saying, “You must read to your children, and you must hug your children, and you must love your children.” All of these elements together, along with many other aspects, form what might be Bush’s most eloquent address during her time as America’s First Lady.
Undoubtedly, those in the audience during Bush’s commencement speech walked away with an improved appreciation for Bush, a sense of pride for their accomplishment, and a challenge to be a better person when they leave Wellesley. These three outcomes, mixed with the speech itself, are what made Bush’s speech so memorable and successful. Not only was Bush able to write a well crafted speech and present it articulately, but she was also able to overcome opposition of her audience and even win them over.

In order to best understand the power behind Bush’s address, listeners must first appreciate who Bush is as an individual by learning something of her history, listeners must also be aware of the context of the address, and finally listeners must have a handle on the various literary and spoken devices Bush used in her speech. Those graduates in the audience received a great honor that day, whether they were expecting it or not, and for those who hear Bush’s speech years after the original address a honor still exists, for the words in Bush’s speech are not bound by time. Rather, her words inspire every person in a way only speeches can do.

Works Cited

Choices and Change. Barbra Bush.

National First Ladies Library. First Lady Biography: Barbara Bush. 23 Feb. 2008.


The White House. Barbara Pierce Bush. 13 Feb. 2008. <http://www.whitehouse.