That’s more of a ‘dog bites man’ headline than anything approximating news, but it’s the headline in this New York Times article on the president’s commencement address at the University of Michigan. What’s the news value of that?

In my estimation, it’s partly that the earlier edition of this same online story carried a header saying Obama urged graduates to “Be Civil”. Now that’s interesting.

President Obama on Saturday directly confronted the sharpening political rancor in Washington, on the airwaves and on the Internet, telling the graduating class at the University of Michigan that the country needs a “basic level of civility in our public discourse.”

Yes, and it starts at home. The White House chief of staff amuses members of the press with his reputation for profanities. Just this week high-ranking Democrats in Congress have grilled financial market executives by repeating a string of bleeped out adjectives that led the press to call them “potty-mouthed congressional interrogators.”

But Obama delivers an address saying that everyone needs to “find ways to listen to one another.”  Indeed.

“Throwing around phrases like ‘socialist’ and ‘Soviet-style takeover,’ ‘fascist’ and ‘right-wing nut’ may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian and even murderous regimes,” Mr. Obama said. Such rhetoric, he said, closes the door to political compromise.

Where was the “listening to one another” and “political compromise” during the health care reform debate?

The Times re-did this story to add some of Obama’s stand up routine at the White House correspondents dinner. But it was largely not funny and sometimes startlingly so (in a joke about vice-president Joe Biden, Obama repeated an expletive under his breath that was picked up on his mic). The shot at Sarah Palin and the joke about death panels in the health care legislation were considerably unpresidential and distinctly tasteless.

So the  Times piece winds up back at his commencement speech and a reference to letters from kindergarten students and it ends on a question:

“The student asked, ‘Are people being nice?’ ”

Unlike the highest members of government, this inquiring child wasn’t being rhetorical.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....