Political Commencement Addresses.--

The current flaps over John McCain speaking at the New School and Columbia graduations and Condi Rice speaking at Boston College induced me to look a bit closer at whom schools invite to speak.

The recent New School Commencement speakers have been Justice Stephen Breyer (2005), Ted Sorenson (2004), John Hollander (2003), and Bernard Lewis (2002). Both Breyer and Lewis gave essentially nonpartisan talks, Lewis's being the dullest of the four commencement addresses that I read on the New School's website. Of course, a speech is meant to be heard, not read, so judging from the text may be misleading.

Hollander gave perhaps the most nuanced and profound talk, which certainly wasn't devoid of political content (nor should it be: politics is important). Excerpt:

These days I am guarded in my use of the word "loyalty", particularly when I speak of anything like a patria. For in these days I'm reminded more and more of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated claim that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. I had grown up feeling myself to be quite patriotic , yet at the same time distrusting people who loudly asserted such patriotic feelings of their own. For me these two notions walked hand in hand, and not in opposition. Chauvinism felt like an affront–and certainly an embarrassment to–what I felt was my relation to my native land. So that in high school and first encountering Johnson’s remark, I took it as sufficiently naughty to be true, and sufficiently true to be more than merely naughty. In any case, it seemed to vindicate my feelings. But also, like most people, I misunderstood it by not reading it carefully enough. In saying that scoundrels would appeal to their own or their listeners' patriotism when all other claims or arguments failed them, Dr. Johnson was not saying that only scoundrels were patriots or vice versa; but he was observing that if you walked through the door of the sacred house of patriotism, you'd certainly find a lot of scoundrels there among the other virtuous residents. This didn't mean that patriotism was itself a bad idea or institution. It did point out one of patriotism’s particular defects, namely that it attracts the most desperate, coarse and sleazy seekers after justification. But patriotism has to be protected from scoundrels, and though this will never be taught in schools, it remains one of the many conclusions toward which education in and for a free society must lead.

On the surface, Hollander seems to be attacking the right (and probably mostly he is), but he is doing so much more--making a profound point about both the dangers of patriotism and the need for it. Hollander also advanced the idea (enshrined in the University of Chicago's Kalven Report) that universities should not, as a collective, take political positions. I would have loved to have heard this brilliant address.

The address by Ted Sorenson, former speechwriter for JFK and Ted Kennedy, is (as he puts it) "not a speech," but rather "a cry from the heart." Excerpt:

This is not a speech. Two weeks ago I set aside the speech I prepared. This is a cry from the heart, a lamentation for the loss of this country’s goodness and therefore its greatness.

Future historians studying the decline and fall of America will mark this as the time the tide began to turn – toward a mean-spirited mediocrity in place of a noble beacon.

For me the final blow was American guards laughing over the naked, helpless bodies of abused prisoners in Iraq. "There is a time to laugh," the Bible tells us, "and a time to weep." Today I weep for the country I love, the country I proudly served, the country to which my four grandparents sailed over a century ago with hopes for a new land of peace and freedom. I cannot remain silent when that country is in the deepest trouble of my lifetime.

I am not talking only about the prison abuse scandal–that stench will someday subside. Nor am I referring only to the Iraq war—that too will pass—nor to any one political leader or party. This is no time for politics as usual, in which no one responsible admits responsibility, no one genuinely apologizes, no one resigns and everyone else is blamed.

The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us.

The stain on our credibility, our reputation for decency and integrity, will not quickly wash away.

This is extraordinarily eloquent, but (despite Sorenson's protestations to the contrary) it is strongly partisan. This, of course, does not make anything he said wrong, or even necessarily inappropriate for a commencement address, where if you say something partisan, you should pull back from the brink (as Sorenson does) of pointing fingers, even though everyone knows what you are saying. I would have enjoyed hearing that speech, as I would have enjoyed a similarly partisan one from the other side the following year, if (hypothetically) such a speech were to be given by an eloquent Republican speechwriter such as Peggy Noonan.

(To read about whom Harvard, Penn, and the Northwestern Law School have had as commencement speakers, click on "Show Hidden Text" and continue reading below the fold.)

Brian G (mail) (www):
The fact that the students want to silence the commencement speakers shows all of us exactly what they learned over 4 years: NOTHING
5.7.2006 5:03pm
AnonymouslyYours (mail):
You also failed to point out Jim, that Boston College has invited several members of the Bush administration to speak at Commencement, including former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns. With no protest. Many of the recent BC commencment speakers have been fairly apolitical (last year's was a Doctor who did service in Africa, 2003's was a blind man who climbed the tallest peaks in the world). The last time BC had a protest about someone being present at commencement was over Cardinal Law (of the child sex abuse scandal).

And Brian, maybe the students have learned something. The Catholic Heirarchy opposed the Iraq invasion as an immoral use of force. Maybe some people take that religious conviction seriously at a...Catholic college.

Or maybe they're just know-nothing libruls.
5.7.2006 7:44pm
James Lindgren (mail):
Anonymously Yours,

I failed to point that out because I didn't know about BC's speakers. I would have mentioned it if I had known it.

Thanks for the context.
5.7.2006 7:53pm
cincinnati reds fan:
In an unrelated story, here is a list of individuals who have thrown out the first pitch on opening day for the Cincinnati Reds:

2006 - President George W. Bush (R)
2005 - Congressman Rob Portman (R)
2004 - Vice President Dick Cheney (R)
2003 - President George H.W. Bush (R)
2002 - Governor Bob Taft (R)
2001 - Senator Mike DeWine (R)
5.7.2006 8:02pm
Bill_123 (mail):
Interesting suggestion, anonymously yours...

Of course, there's an easy test for that. There is no formal position of the Catholic Church on the Iraq war. Some members of the Church have spoken against it, but that is their position, not the Church's.

Now, in contrast, the Catholic Church's position on abortion and birth control is unambigious. It is formally, as matter of command-of-God opposed to them. To be clear, this is not my position. It is theirs.

If the members of a Catholic college take their religious conviction seriously, they would presumably protest much more vigorously against someone who advocated the second than the first, no?

So the question is, has there been anybody who has spoken as a commencement speaker at BC who advocated for birth control or abortion rights(for example, most Democratic party politicians), and was that speaker protested by the students for that stance? That would tell us whether they were taking their religious conviction seriously at a Catholic college, or if they were just, to use your charming phrase, "know-nothing libruls."
5.7.2006 8:24pm
AnonymouslyYours (mail):
Nice try, Bill. But look closely at that list I provided. "Supporting" a position is much different than being the architect of that position. Ostensibly, Nicholas Burns supports the position of the U.S. in Iraq, but he drew no protest. But the burden isn't on me to prove the point. 3 of the last 6 commencement speakers at BC has been a member of the Bush administration. 2 of the of the remaing 3 have been apolitical. (I don't know who the 2004 speaker was). When you're batting .500 you can't claim that conservatives are being shut out of campus when only one of the three, an architect of an unpopular and what some Catholics believe immoral policy, drew a significant protest but will probably go on to speak despite that.

(And isn't the use of birth control being the "lesser evil" in AIDS ravaged Africa, now under discussion formally by Pope Benedict?)
5.7.2006 9:22pm
Jim, I think you're attacking a straw man. Your point seems to be that the New School petition against McCain is hypocritical because nobody had a problem with equally partisan liberals. But the petition does not complain about McCain's partisanship. It complains that "Senator McCain's voting record and public pronouncements are starkly at odds with the progressive social values for which this university once stood, and which we want to see upheld." This argument not only does not apply to conservatives, it doesn't apply to other institutions that do not identify themselves as standing for "progressive social values." The petition is about the New School's identity as an institution. It isn't a good example of liberal hypocrisy or even closed-mindedness.
5.7.2006 10:02pm
Bill_123 (mail):
"you can't claim that conservatives are being shut out of campus"

I'm not. I am saying you can't your Catholic religious convictions require you to oppose someone who was the "architect" of a policy which the Church's doctrine is NOT explicitly opposed to, while saying nothing towards a politician who uses every ounce of power available to him to advance a cause which the Church's doctrine IS explicitly opposed to. This a particularly perverse form of cafeteria Catholicism in which one's own personal opinions become more important than actual Church doctrine.

"(And isn't the use of birth control being the "lesser evil" in AIDS ravaged Africa, now under discussion formally by Pope Benedict?)"

I honestly don't know. I do know that the Church's position on abortion is crystal clear. For what it's worth, I'm not Catholic and certainly don't consider myself bound by Catholic doctrine. And others are free to not consider themselves bound by Catholic doctrine either. They just aren't free to loudly proclaim their Catholic faith at the same time.
5.7.2006 10:35pm
AnonymouslyYours (mail):
Bill, what leads you to assume these people are cafeteria Catholics?
5.7.2006 10:51pm
blackdoggerel (mail):
It's worth noting that recent Harvard Law School commencement speakers (as opposed to Harvard University) are of a decidedly different sort. The last three, I believe, were Jeff Fisher, Ben Stein, and Larry King. Of course, the class marshals pick the law school speaker, with input from the class, which promises for more offbeat selections. University commencement speakers are, I believe, chosen by the powers that be.

Then again, it's surprising that where students actually do have some say in the selection process, they have, at least at Harvard Law School, steered clear of partisanship. This maybe suggests that partisan speakers are more a function of an administration rather than a student body. (Though it should be noted Eliot Spitzer "unofficially" spoke at last year's commencement, although nobody of any political stripe could argue with his "corruption is bad" speech).
5.8.2006 12:46am
What I find interesting is not the positions the speakers take, but the childish ways some of them express those positions to a supposedly educated audience.

Take Sorenson's 'Cry' where he said "For me the final blow was American guards laughing over the naked, helpless bodies of abused prisoners in Iraq." Now, regardless of one's position on the state of the nation, the war in Iraq, the current administration, I would expect an audience that had recently finished a college education and who were presumably historically literate to find that statement laughable.

If the Indian Massacres, the treatment of many slaves, the Tuskegee experiment, and other horrors of our past weren't the "final blow," then Abu Gharib isn't even an also ran for that honor. For this comment to fly, an audience has to have no knowledge of history, and no perspective.
5.8.2006 7:22pm