As I considered the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame University, I recalled a late Irish Catholic friend whose civil rights activism I admired, even if we didn't agree on everything.
One day a word in my column disturbed him so much that he had to call me on it. I had decried the "yahoos" who wanted to ban the right of women to choose abortion. Calmly but firmly, he let me know that he happened to oppose abortion and he didn't think of himself as a yahoo.
I agreed that he was not, by any means. I apologized for any offense he might have taken and promised to avoid such sweeping generalities. We agreed to disagree on abortion and didn't let it get in the way of the many issues on which we agreed.
In today's media age of talk show ideologues poking one another as "socialists," "fascists," "pinheads" or "world's worst persons," talk of civility and comity the ability of adversaries to work together on mutual interests sounds downright quaint.
Yet that was the theme Obama promoted, appropriately, in his commencement speech which had itself drawn controversy at the major Catholic university because of his pro-choice views on abortion.
He set up his theme with an episode like my own, drawn from his second book, "The Audacity of Hope." During his U.S. Senate campaign, a self-described "pro-life" Christian doctor e-mailed Obama to say him because of an entry posted on Obama's website. It said Obama would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose."
"I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion," the doctor wrote, "only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."
Obama wrote back, he said, and thanked the doctor. "I didn't change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my Web site," he said. He also vowed to extend the same presumption of good faith to others, regardless of their agreement with him, "because … that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."
The speech was classic Obama the pragmatist: Look past ideology, try to ignore disagreements and work together on mutual interests.
"So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions," he said, sparking rolling applause. "Let's reduce unintended pregnancies. Let's make adoption more available. Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women."
Each of those points acknowledged the moral tragedy of abortion and was greeted with enthusiastic applause. This, too, was classic Obama. His eloquent come-together oratory enabled him to leave like a hero, even though he glossed over the thorny specifics that drive wedges between people of good will when words are hammered into law.
For example, Obama's call for a "sensible conscience clause" rankles "pro-life" and "pro-choice" advocates who have very different definitions of "sensible." The current federal law permits doctors, pharmacists and other health care workers to refuse to provide medical services for reasons of religion or conscience. Obama's administration has taken steps to replace provisions added under President George W. Bush, charging that the Bush rules unfairly reduce access to abortions for women in rural or otherwise underserved areas.
Also unmentioned in Obama's speech were late-term (also known as "partial-birth") abortions, parental notification of abortions for teen-aged girls and the proposed Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion legalization decision. That law would be "the first thing I'd do as president," he promised Planned Parenthood in 2007. But in a recent news conference he said the bill is "not my highest legislative priority."
As Obama said of the abortion issue, "at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." That's because Americans hold no values more dear than "life" and "choice." In the abortion debate, those values clash head-on.
Obama also plans to convene a series of discussions with people on both sides of the debate and draft a set of policy recommendations by late summer.
For now, by focusing on civility, the president apparently hopes to defuse the abortion powder keg long enough to address his higher priorities. The economy, national security and health care are going to be tough fights. But they're probably not as "irreconcilable" as today's culture war between "life" and "choice."