Volume 74, Number 17 | August 25 - 31 , 2004

Kerry speaks at Cooper Union; hopes hall’s magic will rub off

By Josh Rogers

Villager photo by Ramin Talaie

John Kerry talking inside Cooper Union’s Great Hall, where Abraham Lincoln delivered a famous address denouncing slavery in 1860, shortly after the building had been completed.

Senator John Kerry came to the Village Tuesday to deliver a speech at the place where five successful presidential candidates have spoken, and at the same time he tried to shift the debate away from a Republican-financed campaign challenging his Vietnam War record.

“My duty is to tell the truth instead of hiding behind front groups saying anything and doing anything to avoid the real issues that matter, like jobs, health care and the war in Iraq,” Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, said to an enthusiastic crowd at Cooper Union’s Great Hall. In 1860, one year after the tuition-free college opened, Abraham Lincoln gave the hall’s most famous speech, declaring that “might makes right” as he denounced slavery. The speech is credited by many as having been pivotal to Lincoln’s presidential win later that year.

Kerry supporters came from all over the city to cheer him on Aug. 24.

Brittany Wollman, a senior at Stuyvesant High School, and her sister Marlee, 11, left their home in Queens at 6 a.m. so they could be assured a seat in the hall for the speech, which was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. but started 45 minutes late. Marlee, autograph book in hand, followed Kerry as he worked the hall’s rope line afterwards, but she couldn’t get the Massachusetts senator’s attention.

The sisters did get to shake Kerry’s hand outside Cooper Union. “I’m honored to meet someone who might be president,” the younger sister told a reporter. She appeared too nervous to explain why she was supporting Kerry and opposing President George W. Bush, even after Brittany encouraged her to tell the “G-rated version.”

Brittany, on the other hand, said, “The next time I go to Europe I don’t want to hear about the village idiot we have for president….

“I didn’t think I heard anything new, but it was a good rally to get us going,” Brittany said of Kerry’s speech. “I thought it was really good that he came to New York even though he is going to win New York by a lot.”

Neither Kerry nor Bush has been running commercials in Democratic-leaning New York State. A Kerry staffer said, typically, the senator comes to the city only for fundraisers, but he wanted to visit this time to meet with supporters and avoid any fundraisers.

Ruth Smith, a senior citizen who lives near Cooper Union, said she got to the school too late to get into the hall and she was disappointed she couldn’t hear the speech, because the exterior speakers weren’t working. She was thrilled to see the candidate outside, though, and said she knows from her years living in Massachusetts that he is “intelligent” and “a good man.” She said she dislikes Bush because “he has no respect for the Constitution.”

During his speech, Kerry said several times that the president represented the “narrow interests of the few.” He said Bush has “weakened our middle class, weakened our economy, neglected the crisis of health care, turning away from the American dream of growth and opportunity for all,” pointing to the decline in the number of jobs and the rising federal deficit, among other things.

He borrowed from the biggest applause line of Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic convention last month, although he did not credit Obama, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Kerry said the election is a choice between a White House “that sees us only as red states and blue states and a leadership that honors the rich diversity of all of our people and sees us as one America — red, white and blue.”

Kerry accused Bush and his allies of engaging in “fear and smear” tactics, in another apparent reference to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth commercials that assert Kerry lied in order to earn his Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Heart medals. No members of the group served on Kerry’s Swift boat and the New York Times reported they are primarily financed by Bob Berry, Sam Wyly and Charles Wyly, who are all large Bush and Republican donors.

U.S. Representative Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes Chelsea and much of the Village and Lower Manhattan, said after Kerry’s speech that he hoped the Swift boat coverage ends, but that it will depend on how “gullible” the media continues to be.

Nadler said there was “nothing really new” in Kerry’s speech, but he thought it would help set the record straight before next week’s Republican National Convention.

Nadler voted against giving President Bush the authority to go to war with Iraq and endorsed Howard Dean in the Democratic presidential primary. He said he had no unease in endorsing Kerry, who voted to authorize the war, because he thought Kerry had a subtle position and was not in favor of going to war without a broader international coalition.

“If [Kerry] made a mistake, it was in trusting the president,” Nadler said.

Since Lincoln’s speech, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, William Taft and Teddy Roosevelt have spoken as candidates in the Great Hall, and President Bill Clinton spoke there as well.

Before the speech, Nadler quipped that, “When I was here for Lincoln’s address, the security was not nearly as much and I didn’t see any television cameras.”

George Campbell, Jr., Cooper’s president, said Kerry campaign officials told him a week ago they were considering the Great Hall and several other places for the speech. Campbell said he has been speaking with both parties and he hoped President Bush visited the school, too.

“That’s what the Great Hall is all about,” he said, “having all sides presented and debates about the great issues.”

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