Obama's speech at UI almost seven months in the making

Obama's speech at UI almost seven months in the making

URBANA — The invitation went out on Feb. 12 — Lincoln's birthday.

The letter from University of Illinois President Tim Killeen to former President Barack Obama invited him to accept the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government, handed out by the UI's Institute of Government & Public Affairs.

It wasn't the university's first run at Obama.

In 2017, the campus had spent months trying to persuade the former president to deliver the 2017 commencement address, shortly after he left the White House, but it wasn't to be. Nick Offerman spoke in his place.

This time, the answer was yes. Obama accepted, and a few weeks ago confirmed that he will visit the UI on Sept. 7 to accept the award and give an 11 a.m. speech to students at Foellinger Auditorium. It is not open to the public; tickets will distributed to UI students from all three campuses through a lottery system.

Obama had been nominated earlier this year by an IGPA selection committee made up of public and private individuals, including several of Douglas' grandsons.

"When the discussion came around to President Obama, he was at the top of the list of people nominated," said IGPA Director Jon Davis.

The award honors the legacy of Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois from 1949 to 1967 who had high standards for ethics in public service and championed civil rights.

Obama was chosen not just for his actions as president but also as a senator in Washington and Springfield, said panelist Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor at the UI Springfield.

"Even in the midst of a sharply divided and contentious political debate, you have been a model of integrity and high ethical standards," the letter to Obama said.

The UI got an assist early on from Senate Minority Leader Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who is friends with Obama and considered Douglas a mentor.

Durbin interned with Douglas as a young man and now holds his Senate seat. Douglas was defeated by Republican Charles Percy, who later lost the seat to Democrat Paul Simon, whose retirement paved the way for Durbin, then a congressman, to become senator in 1996.

Durbin has hosted the Douglas Award ceremony each year and reached out to Obama early on to gauge his interest, said Jim Paul, assistant director at IGPA.

Durbin tweeted Thursday that Obama's "achievements and vision of government embody what Senator Paul Douglas believed in."

In the letter to Obama, the UI offered to host the ceremony "wherever and whenever it is most convenient," noting the demands on his time.

Typically, the ceremony is held in Washington in the spring, near Douglas' birthday in late March.

The UI had suggested the Chicago or Urbana-Champaign campuses, and Obama chose the downstate location. The IGPA delayed the ceremony until next week to accommodate his schedule, as it has done in years past, Paul said.

The news was a closely guarded secret, with some campus officials asked to make arrangements for a major speaker without knowing who it was.

"I knew it was big. I thought it was Oprah," said Chris Harris, senior director of strategic communications in public affairs.

Obama, a former law professor, liked the idea of speaking on a college campus, an audience he connected with frequently as president.

"He chose it because it's a flagship university in his adopted home state, and also because it's downstate," Obama communications director Katie Hill said Thursday. "It's a chance for him to visit a part of the state that he loves and that he made a point of campaigning in when he was running for senate and running for president and connect with students there."

Obama wanted to emphasize a theme he sounded during one of his last press conferences as president, after the 2016 election, about how important it is for Democrats to get out and talk to voters in all parts of the country, no matter how "red."

"I became a U.S. senator not just because I had a strong base in Chicago, but because I was driving around downstate Illinois and going to fish frys and sitting in VFW halls and talking to farmers," he said then. "And I didn't win every one of their votes, but they got a sense of what I was talking about, what I cared about, that I was for working people, that I was for the middle class, that the reason I was interested in strengthening unions, and raising the minimum wage, and rebuilding our infrastructure, and making sure that parents had decent childcare and family leave was because my own family's history wasn't that different from theirs, even if I looked a little bit different."

Obama has given only a handful of major public speeches since leaving the White House, including one this summer honoring Nelson Mandela.

His speech next week will pick up a theme he sounded during his last year in office when he warned of threats to U.S. democracy, Hill said.

Obama will "offer new thoughts on this moment and what it requires from the American people," she said in a statement.

"He will echo his call to reject the rising strain of authoritarian politics and policies. And he will preview arguments he'll make this fall, specifically that Americans must not fall victim to our own apathy by refusing to do the most fundamental thing demanded of us as citizens: vote."

The former president will be presented with his award at a private ceremony following his public speech.

The annual Douglas award has been given since 1994, and past recipients include the late Sen. John McCain, Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens, Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Olympia Snowe, Archibald Cox, and Rep. John Lewis. Last year's award was given in November to Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, who chaired the Federal Reserve Board.

Davis said he's excited that students will have an opportunity to hear the former president speak.

Chancellor Robert Jones said the campus was "buzzing all day long" after Thursday's announcement.

"We know how difficult it is for a sitting or former president to accept all of these invitations. This is a very special recognition, and we're just absolutely pleased and thrilled," said Jones, who met the former president briefly years ago at a presidential campaign event in Minnesota. "I can't think of anyone that is any more deserving of this honor."

Return engagement

Barack Obama has visited Champaign-Urbana before, but not as president:

— In January 2004, a year before taking office as a U.S. senator, he gave an address at the Holiday Inn in Urbana for that year's Martin Luther King celebration.

—  In April 2004 he spoke at a conference at the UI College of Law on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision. His speech was entitled, "Brown's Next Fifty Years."

— Later that year, a week after his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention boosted him to the national stage, he stopped at the Illini Union as part of a five-day tour of the state as a U.S. Senate candidate. He gave a stump speech with familiar themes, invoking connectedness and common goals.

"There are more things binding us together than keeping us apart," he told the crowd of students, academics and Democratic Party faithful.

A day earlier, he had drawn a crowd of 300 at Clinton High School, then addressed a crowd in Danville that night.

— In 2005, as a U.S. senator, he visited the Illini Union to promote a bill to raise the maximum amount of need-based federal Pell grants.

— Former Vice President Joe Biden visited the UI in 2015 as part of the "It's On Us" campaign against sexual assault on college campuses.