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Where Celebration Meets Commitment
U.S. Naval Academy Honors Class of '09

By Ashley Halsey III and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 23, 2009

The poignant moment that might have been became apparent as a young midshipman in the starched white Navy full-dress uniform approached the stage and his name boomed throughout the stadium: "John S. McCain the fourth."

The president who waited to shake his hand might have been his father, had the voters decided otherwise in November, and there could be no doubt the crowd's roar at the name "McCain" was more for the father than the son.

Young McCain yesterday gave President Obama a warm embrace and then moved on to receive his diploma. His father, who watched from a front-row seat off to the side, his grandfather and his great-grandfather all graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy.

The president arrived at the outdoor graduation ceremony to polite applause from what calls itself the "Navy family," the close-knit military community comprised of midshipmen's relatives and Annapolis households who open their doors to midshipmen during their four years at the academy.

This was neither the crowd nor the setting at which to revisit the debate over waterboarding or Guantanamo Bay, and Obama barely mentioned the issues that roiled political waters this week.

Echoing themes from a speech he delivered Thursday to explain why his national security efforts must align with the liberties enshrined in the nation's founding documents, Obama said: "We uphold our fundamental principles and values not just because we choose to, but because we swear to. Not because they feel good, but because they help keep us safe."

Obama praised the graduates, saying they represent the best of the American character at a time when he said insufficient numbers of citizens are moved to service.

"America, look at these young men and women. Look at these sailors and Marines. Here are the values we cherish. Here are the ideals that endure," he said. "In an era when too few citizens answer the call to service -- to community or country -- these Americans chose to serve. And they did so in a time of war, knowing they might be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice."

In his 20-minute speech, Obama promised the 1,036 graduates that after they help end the war in Iraq and win the one in Afghanistan, he would be judicious about sending them into future conflicts.

"I will only send you into harm's way when it is absolutely necessary, and with the strategy, the well-defined goals, the equipment and the support you need to get the job done," he said.

"And to get you the support you need, we're enlisting all elements of our national power -- our diplomacy and development and our economic might and our moral suasion -- so that you and the rest of our military do not bear the burden of our security alone," he added.

His affirmations of support for the military drew increasingly warm applause, and at the conclusion he received a brief standing ovation from the crowd, estimated at 27,000, in Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium. The White House said afterward that Obama did not acknowledge Sen. John McCain's family "out of respect for their wishes."

It was an unprecedented day for the Marine Corps, with a record 266 men and women in the corps' black dress jackets rising amid the sea of white uniforms to be sworn in as Marines by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Kramlich, who quipped, "At Marine Corps bases around the world, Marines are looking for their new lieutenant."

Afterward, parents swarmed onto the field for the ritual of pinning ensign epaulets and lieutenant bars on the new Navy and Marine officers.

"One of his professors said he is intelligent and humble," Mary Cianelli of Chico, Calif., said of her son, Michael, as she beamed at him. "I'm hoping he stays intelligent and humble for the rest of his life."

"Oh, Mom," Michael said. "He wants to know how you feel, not about me."

"This is the best day of my life," his mother replied. "Let's go to Disney World!"

In fact, after a few weeks off, Michael will report to Pensacola, Fla., to be trained as a pilot. By summer's end, his classmates, each with a minimum military commitment of five years, will be spread out around the world.

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