May 20, 2006
Make Poetry, Not War
By MAUREEN DOWD
It was a rough crowd for agents of American imperialism.
At the New School commencement at Madison Square Garden’s theater yesterday afternoon, dozens of the red-and-black-gowned graduates and some faculty were heckling, cackling, hissing, booing, jeering, whooping, bolting, turning their backs and holding up orange signs that read, “Our commencement is not your platform.” As for John McCain, he spoke about how the “passion for self-expression sometimes overwhelms our civility.”
“We’re graduating, not voting,” one young man yelled.
“This is all about you,” another called out. “We don’t care.”
A little while after the senator quoted Yeats about the fleeting nature of beauty, a student sarcastically called out, “More poetry.”
First, Mr. McCain and the New School’s president, Bob Kerrey, were slapped around by a student speaker, Jean Sara Rohe, a 21-year-old from Nutley, N.J., who sang a lyric from a peace song and then abandoned her original remarks to talk about the “outrage” over Mr. McCain’s speaking gig.
“The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded,” Ms. Rohe said, adding: “I am young, and although I don’t profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that pre-emptive war is dangerous and wrong.”
She continued: “And I know that despite all the havoc that my country has wrought overseas in my name, Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction.”
The New School, of course, makes New York University seem like Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where Mr. McCain kowtowed last weekend to Jerry Falwell, the looney-toon he formerly deemed an agent of intolerance. (Just as Rudy buddy-buddied with Ralph Reed in Atlanta.)
The ultraliberal kids at the New School, the pacifist Greenwich Village university, think of themselves as free-thinking rabble-rousers in a world where many college kids, complacently cocooned under iPods, don’t even like to debate, much less protest.
When a rigid-faced Mr. Kerrey chided the audience for being rude, a young woman yelled out, “You’re a war criminal!” And a guy chimed in, “Yes, you are!”
It was a remarkable tableau to see the two iconoclastic vets, their bodies beneath the black gowns still bearing broken pieces from Vietnam, being pilloried by kids angry about another endless war, faceless enemy and feckless defense secretary.
Senator McCain came to Mr. Kerrey’s defense in 2001. That’s when graduate students called for the New School president to resign and for Congress to investigate him because a Times magazine piece had revealed that he had led a Seals unit that killed up to 20 unarmed civilians, most of them women and children.
(The Pentagon is now investigating a case in Haditha, Iraq, where marines are accused of killing 15 unarmed Iraqis from two families, including 7 women and 3 children.)
Yesterday, Mr. Kerrey returned the favor, admonishing the students that when they are “heckling from an audience … no bravery is required.”
The Arizona senator did not depart from his text and engage the students, as Bill Clinton might have done, with a passionate exegesis of his stance. And, still trying to show that his temper is under control, he did not push back, as Rudy Giuliani might have.
He may have even found the screaming students useful, as a liberal hippie foil that will endear him to the evangelical base he’s smooching up. Mr. McCain’s adviser, John Weaver, talked dismissively of the West Village students, saying they should get out more and hear opposing viewpoints.
Mr. McCain’s panderthon grew even more absurd this week. He let the Wyly brothers — the Texas businessmen who financed a $2.5 million ad campaign in 2000 trashing his environmental record, a move that enraged Mr. McCain and spurred him to call the Wylys W.’s “sleazy Texas buddies” — hold a fund-raiser for him in Dallas.
The senator may have wanted to give the same commencement speech at Liberty, the New School and Columbia as a way of showing those disillusioned by his snuggling with old enemies that he is still a straight talker, willing to say the same thing to Southern conservatives and Northern liberals.
But Bob Kerrey better summed up the feeling of many of us about the New McCain in the new issue of Men’s Vogue. He mocked the senator’s coziness with W., telling Ned Martel: “He kissed him! McCain let Bush’s lips touch him. Yuck!”