Sunday, May 21, 2006

Politics and Commencement Speakers

Every Spring we see the same story over and over again. Colleges invite famous people to speak at commencement ceremonies. And every year, political figures are invited. And every year, liberals dominate the list of speakers. Here are some selections from 2004.
At the 50 highest-ranked undergraduate universities (according to U.S. News & World Report), liberals overwhelmingly dominate the list of graduation speakers. Of the 40 universities where commencement-speaker information was available, 29 speakers are politically partisan. Twenty-one of those 29 -- 72 percent -- are liberal.

The only conservatives or Republicans speaking at major universities are Sen. John McCain (University of Southern California and University of Florida), Sen. John Warner (University of Virginia), Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (Vanderbilt University in Nashville), White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (Rice University in Houston), Secretary of State Colin Powell (Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.), and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (Georgia Institute of Technology).

Meanwhile, liberals and Democrats dominate the rolls. From Bill Clinton (Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.) to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Duke University in Durham, N.C.), from Clinton Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier (University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign) to Clinton friend Vernon E. Jordan (Penn State University at University Park), from Sen. John Breaux (Tulane University in New Orleans) to Clinton Solicitor General Walter Dellinger (Boston College), liberals have conservatives on the ropes, both in terms of university quality and in terms of speaking quantity. Of the top 15 universities, 10 are having politically active speakers; nine of those speakers are liberals or Democrats.

Clearly, conservatives are at a decided disadvantage at commencements. Not only are prestigious American liberals bestowed honorary degrees and open microphones. Radical international liberals and groovy airhead liberals get the bully pulpit, too.
And when conservatives are invited these days, some students throw a coniption at the idea that a conservative should speak at their graduation. This year we saw protests at Columbia's New School over John McCain being invited and similar protests at Boston College over Condoleezza Rice's appearance. The message these students seem to be sending is that they don't want to hear from anyone they might disagree with. Conservative students who might have disagreed with the overwhelming number of liberal speakers appearing at college campuses in the past decade don't need to hear from someone they agree with. It is the liberals who are rudely protesting hearing from a Republican.

When did we reach the point that people just don't want to hear from the other side any more? When conservatives start protesting about liberal domination on college campuses, the response is either skepticism that this is a real phenomenon or advice to just bear with it because professors have the right to structure their classes they way they want. And now, when a handful of Republicans show up at college commencements, the kids are up in arms about it. I'm sure their conservative classmates could give them a few pointers on how to endure political messages that you don't agree with.

Meanwhile, when McCain spoke last weekend at Columbia, this was his message.
"I had a friend once, who, a long time ago, in the passions and resentments of a tumultuous era in our history, I might have considered my enemy," Mr. McCain said. "He had come once to the capitol of the country that held me prisoner, that deprived me and my dearest friends of our most basic rights, and that murdered some of us. He came to that place to denounce our country's involvement in the war that had led us there. His speech was broadcast into our cells. I thought it a grievous wrong and I still do."

"A few years later, he had moved temporarily to a kibbutz in Israel. He was there during the Yom Kippur War, when he witnessed the support America provided our beleaguered ally. He saw the huge cargo planes bearing the insignia of the United States Air Force rushing emergency supplies into that country. And he had an epiphany. He had believed America had made a tragic mistake and done a terrible injustice by going to Vietnam, and he still did. But he realized he had let his criticism temporarily blind him to his country's generosity and the goodness that most Americans possess, and he regretted his failing deeply," Mr. McCain said.

The man of whom the senator was speaking was an American idealist named David Ifshin, whose life has much to teach us all. "When he returned to his country he became prominent in Democratic Party politics," the senator said. "He still criticized his government when he thought it wrong, but he never again lost sight of all that unites us. We met some years later. He approached me and asked to apologize for the mistake he believed he had made as a young man. Many years had passed since then, and I bore little animosity for anyone because of what they had done or not done during the Vietnam War. It was an easy thing to accept such a generous act, and we moved beyond our old grievance," Mr. McCain said.
Whatever you think of John McCain, this is a message it would do well for the students at the New School to hear. As Americans there is much that unites us and we should not lose sight of that. And part of what unites us is a heritage of freedom of political speech. There have been times when we have strayed from that tradition and those are not stellar moments in our past. Let us not return to those days again.