Donald Trump, in his first commencement address as U.S. President, exhorted new college graduates to make a difference by challenging "accepted wisdom and tak[ing] on accepted systems. I think I did," Trump said.
Before a crowd of 50,000 people at Liberty University's Williams Stadium, Trump talked principally about the graduates' achievements and bright futures and about the history and values of the school. He returned to that theme several times, associating himself only by inference with the audience of potential change-makers.
Following a week of brickbats from all parts of the political spectrum for his firing of FBI director James Comey, Trump made no direct references to those attacks, referring only obliquely to the kinds of cowardly "critics" that graduates could expect to encounter on their principled paths. "The future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics," he said.
Trump made a persuasive and uncharacteristically understated bid for the continued support of evangelicals. In a conventional graduation address largely free of attacks, bombast, and self-congratulation, he celebrated the nation's Christian traditions; the history of Liberty University and its founder, Jerry Falwell; graduates; mothers; veterans; and--for more than three minutes--the Liberty Flames, who recently announced a move up to the highest level of college football.
Liberty University, in Lynchburg, Virginia, is known as the world's largest evangelical Christian university. Its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., was an early Trump supporter and, in February, was asked by the president to lead a panel tasked with reforming regulations on higher education.
The speech was far removed from the address Trump delivered here on Martin Luther King Day in 2016. That was a modified version of his stump speech and, notably, said virtually nothing about Martin Luther King.
His commencement speech was reminiscent of the president's first address to Congress in its restraint and recognition of the contributions of others. It was a reminder that he is capable of behaving like an ordinary politician--at least for half an hour.