Volume 76, Number 1 | May 24 - 30, 2006

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Some faculty and graduates turned their backs and held signs protesting John McCain’s speaking at New School University’s commencement last Friday.

Pro-war McCain takes fire at New School graduation

By Lincoln Anderson

In the face of protest in recent weeks, New School University President Bob Kerrey defiantly said he wouldn’t withdraw his selection of Senator John McCain as commencement speaker. On the contrary, he promised it would be a commencement the graduates would remember. There’s no question they won’t forget it. But probably what they’ll remember more than anything else is the rude and raucous reception McCain got. This included being one-upped by the student speaker — who dissected the senator’s speech before he even gave it — boos and catcalls from the audience, students standing and turning their backs in silent protest, banners protesting his appearance and — perhaps most hurtful — groans of boredom.

About 1,200 New School students, faculty and staff had signed a petition calling for Kerrey to withdraw his invitation to McCain, feeling the Arizona Republican’s conservative views — foremost, his support of the Iraq war, as well as his views on abortion and gay rights — clash with those of the traditionally liberal and progressive New School. Also, the protesters felt, Kerrey was giving McCain — the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination — a campaign platform, making their commencement about politics, rather than “for the seniors.”

In his opening remarks last Friday at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Kerrey — a former Nebraska senator, friend of McCain’s and himself a past presidential candidate — acknowledged the objection to his selection of McCain to speak at such a traditionally liberal university. However, he said, “‘Liberal’ is a word that is associated with open-mindedness and individual freedom.” Of the protesters’ petition, Kerrey said, “I respect and vigorously defend it.”

After first belting out a hymn to world peace, Jean Sara Rohe, one of the two student speakers, declared, “The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded — and his selection was a top-down decision.” Enthusiastic cheers from the audience greeted her words, almost drowning her out.

Noting she knew McCain planned to give the same speech he had a few days before at commencement at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Columbia University’s Class Day, Rohe explained he would talk about his hardheaded youth when he thought he knew more than his elders.

“I am young…and I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong,” Rohe said, again to explosive cheering. “Osama bin Laden still has not been found — or those weapons of mass destruction,” she added. “These words I speak do not reflect the words of a young, strong-headed woman but come out of a tradition of progressiveness of the New School.”

After Rohe had finished, Kerrey approached the podium with a smile, as if in admiration of Rohe’s spirit and conviction.

“Well, we’re having some fun now,” he said, prompting some laughter.

In introducing him, Kerrey noted McCain — who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — has always refused the title of war hero, and has been a leading voice against torture and mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere. Noting he also had previewed McCain’s speech, Kerrey said he felt it was good, quipping, however, that at 28 minutes it was a bit long.

McCain seemed initially subdued as he spoke, mostly looking down at his notes, not up at the crowd.

On one side of the theater, a large orange banner reading “Our Commencement Is Not Your Platform” was unfurled. Dozens of students and faculty members stood up holding orange “McCain Does Not Speak For Me” signs and turned their backs, remaining that way through the speech. (The protesters’ signs were at least in keeping with New School’s new official color, which apparently is burnt orange.)

McCain’s folksy reminiscence of his youthful arrogance was entertaining enough and didn’t draw much crowd reaction.

Veering to foreign policy, he warned that should the U.S. lose the Iraq war, the area will be further destabilized and terrorism will escalate and “unleash forces that will be with us for a long time.” He noted bin Laden has told Muslims to take up arms against Westerners attempting to stop the genocide in Darfur.

“This is a fight between ideals, between right and wrong,” he said.

But the graduates wearied of what clearly seemed to many of them like a political stump speech.

“We’re graduating, not voting!” someone shouted out.

“I want to marry my boyfriend!” another yelled at another point, to laughter.

“Freedom — we aren’t fighting each other — we have a real enemy….” McCain continued.

“We already heard this part!” came a frustrated cry.

The speech was now nearing the 20-minute mark.

“I had friend once,” McCain said, segueing into another anecdote — and a painful groan swept the theater. As McCain ended, there were cheers, but also boos, whistles and cheers — of the Bronx variety.

Kerrey was no longer smiling as he took the podium this time. He called both Rohe’s and McCain’s speeches “acts of bravery — not heckling from an audience where no bravery’s involved.”

“Oh shut up!” came a young woman’s voice.

“You are a war criminal!” another woman flung at Kerrey. The New School president — who has admitted leading a mission in Vietnam in which a group of unarmed women and children were killed — momentarily lost his spot in his notes.

Things settled down as the degrees were conferred on the nearly 2,500 graduates from the New School’s various division, including the New School, Parsons School of Design, Eugene Lang College, Mannes College of Music and Milano School of Management and Urban Policy.

McCain’s speech didn’t get high marks with several people interviewed afterwards.

Almaz Zelleke, the New School’s director of academic affairs, had a green “Still Against the War” pinned on her black graduation robe.

“He was a terrible speaker,” she said of McCain. “It was cliché ridden, much too long and not tailored to the audience.” Zelleke said the protests against McCain’s speaking at commencement were, in the end, “vindicated.” “It was obviously a recycled and rehearsed speech,” she said.

Riding the 1 train back Downtown after the ceremony, still wearing his red graduation gown, John Targon, a Parsons graduate who lives in the East Village, said McCain hadn’t made much of an impression on him.

“I fell asleep,” he said.

One parent from Texas, who declined to give her name, said she made sure her daughter attended commencement. Two of her daughter’s friends had opted to boycott the ceremony.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to listen to both sides,’ ” the mother said. “I think she would regret it if she didn’t. It’s a milestone.”

Asked why she withheld her name, she said she was once misquoted by Newsweek.

“It was a long time ago,” she said. “A different era — similar protest.”

Speaking on Tuesday, Kerrey said, even after the rough treatment that McCain — and he — received he doesn’t regret his invitation to McCain.

“Quite the contrary, I would do it again,” he said.

“I think the idea of students acting up in objection to the commencement speaker is not an unusual idea,” Kerrey said. “In this case, it was predictable, because the students had raised objections and asked me to withdraw the invitation. I disagree with the assertion that he doesn’t represent the ideals of the university.”

Kerrey said, “out of respect,” he had met with the students when they presented him with the petition the Monday before graduation, adding, “and I’m glad I did.”

“The protesters were rude and disruptive, but not enough to keep Senator McCain from speaking or to shut down the commencement,” Kerrey said. “When he was walking in and out they didn’t shout at him or throw anything at him.”

Noting he’s given commencement speeches himself, Kerrey reiterated that he felt the length of McCain’s speech worked against him.

The school’s president said he admired Rohe’s speech and the fact that she made it “smack in front of” him and McCain.

He noted it wasn’t the first time a New School commencement speaker was booed. It also happened in 1968, when Senator Patrick Moynihan was the speaker and some disagreed with his views on quotas and local control of the schools. Kerrey had planned to invite Moynihan to be the 2002 commencement speaker, but Moynihan died that year. In a letter to Kerrey, Moynihan noted the protest during his New School speech had gotten news coverage too.

“He said it was sufficiently controversial that is was above the fold [of The New York Times],” Kerrey said, “but Robert Kennedy died that day, and they changed the front page” in later editions.

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