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Conservative Speakers Unwelcome on Commencement Day

May 21, 2006

Sen. John McCain had a rough week in New York City, facing protesters who resented his speeches at Columbia University’s Class Day and the New School for Social Research commencement ceremony.

The New York Daily News quoted a graduating senior who didn’t want him at Columbia. “He encouraged us to speak up, but we still resent that our graduation day was used as a political platform,” she said. She has a point, but it is a very small one and not very relevant to McCain’s remarks. Yes, he seems to be on track to run for president, but candidates and potential candidates give commencement talks all the time. As long as they seem to be addressing the graduates, rather than their own partisan nostrums and ambitions, that’s fine.

The only New York newspaper that gave us any clear idea of what McCain said at Columbia was the conservative New York Sun. A Sun editorial said, “It’s hard to remember a more moving moment in college oratory” than the one the senator gave. He talked of his anger, as he sat in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam War, hearing the piped-in voice of an antiwar American activist. The activist was the late David Ifshin, who had traveled to North Vietnam to denounce the United States. McCain said he and Ifshin later reached out to each other, and by the time Ifshin died of cancer at age 47, they had become friends who worked together toward shared ideals. Tales of political healing and the ability of political adversaries to work together are obviously important these days. McCain also spoke for civility in debate and respect between political adversaries. This is over the line?

At the New School in Greenwich Village, student protesters pressured former Sen. Robert Kerrey, now president of the school, to rescind his invitation for McCain to speak. Kerrey refused to yield. Writing in the New York Observer, Niall Stanage said: “It is blatantly obvious that (the protesting students) do not object at all to their graduation being used as a political platform, so long as the politics in question are liberal — hence the dreamy reference to the ‘values and spirit’ of the college. What they object to is the same platform being given to political opinions with which they disagree.”

That’s a fair comment. The New School describes itself as “progressive,” and it has all the modern hallmarks of an institution set up by and for liberals, including a strong insistence on political orthodoxy. It functions as a sort of leftist seminary, where the seminarians are not eager to hear from competing faiths. After all, they already have the truth. On a radio program, the vice chair of the University Student Senate said: “I’m really concerned just in terms of the principles that our university was founded on, and McCain obviously has made it clear … that he does not necessarily endorse those or share those same views. … That’s really what we’re founded on, and that’s what we’re all taught.”

Horrors! A speaker who disagrees politically with the university and what it has been teaching all the seminarians! What’s next — teachers who dissent from the faith and lapse into heresy?

Though resistant to conservative, Republican and even some moderate speakers, a few highly political campuses seem ready to accept even ax murderers as commencement speakers, provided that they speak from the left. The late “Tookie” Williams gave two commencement speeches. He is ineligible for more because he was executed last December for the slaughter of many innocents in two robberies. Mumia Abu-Jamal has given many commencement speeches, including five in one year, on tape of course, since he sits on death row for the cold-blooded execution of a cop. So far, no such invitations to the Unabomber though.

The politicization of choices for commencement speakers isn’t new. Brent Bozell at the Media Research Center has been documenting it for years. What’s new is the sense of deep grievance when a moderate conservative like John McCain shows up.

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