Graduation Speakers Stir Political Controversy · 12 May 2004

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Mary Beth Marklein--USA Today, 05/13/04

President Bush, who gets some 100 invitations a year to deliver college commencement addresses, Friday makes the first of three such appearances this spring - at a Lutheran college in Wisconsin, a battleground state in November's presidential election.

Keynote speaker: John Kerry spoke at Southern University in New Orleans. There were no protests against his appearance.
By Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

There was no trick to snaring such a big name, says Patrick Ferry, president of Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon. "We invited and he accepted."

Bush also is to speak May 21 at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge - another swing state - and June 2 at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

But the idea of inviting White House officials to commencement during an election year doesn't sit well at all campuses. LSU College Democrats are already planning an anti-Bush rally. When word spread that Bush had been invited to the University of Arizona, hundreds of faculty, staff and grad students complained in an open letter that Bush "will use the opportunity to promote his political candidacy in a key swing election state." The White House later said Bush was not available on the scheduled date.

Protesters demonstrated May 1 during Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Florida State University, another swing state, though many agree his message was apolitical. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was similarly received at Michigan State University on Friday.

But at Miami Dade College, where first lady Laura Bush spoke May 1, Boy Scouts passed out American flags. And no reports of criticism have emerged after likely Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's appearance last Saturday at Southern University in New Orleans. He also is to speak May 28 to graduates of Boston College Law School, his alma mater.

While many universities are honored to host political dignitaries, others fear elected officials will distract from the day. Even the president and first lady decided not to attend their daughters' graduations this year, at Yale and the University of Texas, saying they want the focus to be on the girls, not them.

Also, "we're not looking to be a podium for a campaign speech," says Peggy Williams, president of Ithaca College. Ralph Nader, who agreed to speak at Bucknell University's commencement this spring before he announced his run for office, was asked to sign an agreement that his speech would not be "political in tone or content," says Bucknell's Maureen Merluzzi.

Conservative activist David Horowitz, who says high-profile universities overwhelmingly favor liberal commencement speakers, calls it "total hypocrisy" to protest commencement appearances by elected officials.

"The president of the United States represents us all," he says.