Bob Kerrey on the McCain Commencement Flap

Former Senator Bob Kerrey, president of The New School, offers his perspective on the rude treatment suffered this weekend by invited commencement speaker John McCain. After a few paragraphs explaining why McCain was such a good choice and defending the decision to not disinvite him after many students expressed their displeasure, Kerrey goes on:

That said, I now speak in defense of the behavior of my students — the minority who protested and the majority who did not. On the surface, some of the tactics of the protest were rude, noisy, and disrespectful. Less obvious, however, was the self-restraint that prevented the protestors from behaving in a fashion that would have shut down the commencement or made it impossible for Senator McCain or me to continue. Though many in the audience — including Senator McCain and I — were offended by the heckling, at no time were we in danger of not being able to proceed. By the end of the program, we had awarded five honorary degrees and graduated 2,630 students in The New School’s 70th Commencement ceremony.

So, we’re to applaud rudeness because it stopped short of criminal rioting? That’s a rather low standard. Further, that it was a minority protesting rather reinforces the point that their conduct infringed on the rights of the majority who were there to enjoy the solemnity of a major life milestone, not listen to the petulant whinings of brats.

More importantly — and also lost in the charges and counter-charges — is this fact: student protests are a necessary and essential part of democratic free expression. Did we not love the brave and disrespectful students at Tiananmen? Did we not applaud the determination of the student led movements that helped bring down the dictators that ruled Eastern Europe in 1991? Have we forgotten the critical difference students made in reversing an unlawful election in Ukraine or in driving the Syrians from Lebanon or who still seethe in discontent under the religious law of Iran’s mullahs?

I’m not a big fan of John McCain but comparison of him with the butchers of Tiananmen, Iranian mullahs, and other despots is specious. For one thing, the students would have been perfectly free to protest McCain outside the building or pretty much any other time and place without being accused of bad behavior. We live in a free society; those who stood up to tyranny in Kerrey’s example do not. Surely, too, it takes a mite more courage to stand up to government tanks than to hold up signs in the company of fellow travelers.

Thus, when some of the critics of The New School students suggest they should have behaved with more discipline, as did the students at Liberty University, I strongly disagree.

Really? So, lack of discipline is good?

Our students were moved by idealism, not arrogance. I may not agree with their conclusions, but I do not begin with the presumption that my age gives me a privileged view of the truth. Quite the contrary — I believe that those of us who are older should keep our ears and hearts open to the possibility that our age may have cost us the most important of human characteristics: the hope for a better, fairer, and more just world.

That your wisdom and training gives you a huge intellectual advantage over your students is the raison detre of a university. If you honestly think your perspective is no more valuable than theirs, you should resign forthwith.

Related: John McCain Booed at New School Commencement

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    While the actions of the student body were rather rude, a graduation is supposed to be about the graduates. McCain, and by extension Kerrey, tried to make it a soapbox for their own purposes – that’s pretty rude also…

  2. lily says:

    A Democratic Representative was driven off the stage and had to be escorted to safety by security people because of verbal and near-physical attacks from conservative students. Maybe that’s what Kerrey was thinking about when he said that the rude students at the New School didn’t stop the prodedings or threaten anyone’s safety.
    I don’t approve of the rudeness of the students. I also don’t approve of the publicizing of this situatin when the situation involving conservtive students was worse.

  3. lily says:

    The incident involved Rep Lacy Clay of Missouri and she was trying to give a commencement address. Glenn Greenwald has links to Missouri newspapers.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Lilly: I’ve never heard of Lacy Clay, which likely explains why said incident didn’t get the attention this one did. I haven’t found anything but a couple blog write-ups about the incident.

  5. Stevely says:

    legion I can only assume you’ve never been to a graduation ceremony yourself. Every one I have ever been in, and every one I have ever witnessed or heard about from others, featured some speaker who delivered a speech prepared and delivered without the input of the graduates. McCain’s speech was no different from any other such commencement speech.

    So I don’t get your point. Unless it is to say that one has license to act like an ass in the presence of people one disagrees with in some way?

  6. Steven Plunk says:

    William Lacy Clay is a male. Minor point but it should be cleared up.

    My research into this incident showed that he made a complete ass of himself and infuriated most of the audience. Not only was his message wrong but his classless displayed earned him the ire of those gathered.

    I saw no mention of “near-physical attacks”. I also read the jerk finished his address and security was called in later. It also appears the boos and jeers were as much fro the audience as from any conservative students.

    Regardless, civility is required at these events. All should practice it.

  7. ICallMasICM says:

    ‘A Democratic Representative was driven off the stage and had to be escorted to safety by security people because of verbal and near-physical attacks from conservative students. ‘

    That’s roughly the argument my 3 year old uses when she does something wrong. Somebody else did something.

  8. Bithead says:

    So, weâ??re to applaud rudeness because it stopped short of criminal rioting?

    Why of course, James.
    Let’s face it, compared to the behavior of some of the left these days, these morons were outright placid…

  9. legion says:

    Of course speakers write their speeches without inputs from the graduating class. But the speech itself is supposed to be to, about, or somehow relevant to the graduating class – not a campaign speech or opportunity to spin gov’t policies to the general public. McCain’s stumping so hard for the GOP nomination he doesn’t take a dump these days without a press release – Kerrey knew what he was getting when he brought McCain in, and he should have known the students wouldn’t take it well.

  10. lily says:

    Your three year old uses it as an excuse for her behavior. I didn’t present it as an excuse for anyone’s behavior. If fact I stated that I didn’t approve of the rudeness. My point, which is valid, is this: if the rudeness to McCCain is worthy of the attention of rightwing blogs, then the even worse rudeness to the Rep. is also worthy of attention unless the blogs are purposely or inadvertantly being hypocritical.
    You haven’t refuted my point.

  11. ICallMasICM says:

    Because you don’t have one. They did it first isn’t a point.

  12. LaurenceB says:

    My rules of decorum:

    A graduation speaker may choose to speak on whatever he or she wants to – including a campaign stump speech, or a “nasty” condemnation of the President’s policies.

    Booing and cheering are both acceptable.

    Standing and turning your back, interrupting with catcalls, and booing to the point of stopping the speech, are not acceptable.

    Countering the speech of the invitee with your own (such as was done by Ms. Rohe) is perfectly acceptable.

    Feel free to formulate your own rules, but these are mine.

  13. legion says:

    You’re being deliberately obtuse. “they did it first” isn’t lily’s point… Her point is that they did it, and nobody on the right cared until the same thing (worse, actually, since nobody at New College actively made McCain feel threatened) was done to one of their own.

    And it is still valid.

  14. L DEJongh says:

    The end result of all this will be what I experienced at the recent graduation ceremony at u of Wisconsin-Madison, a world class university. The commencement address was given by a cook who never received her high school diploma and whose claim to fame was that she catered the university recruitment events. Nice person, but did she deserve a Doctor of Humane Letters for being a good cook? Still, no controversy.

  15. Stevely says:


    So I was right about what your point was.

  16. Dave Schuler says:

    I ask the same question I asked when this subject was raised in a previous post: how was McCain selected? When I graduated from college well over a generation ago, the graduating seniors voted on the commencement speaker from a slate of candidates.

    Attempts to shout a speaker down are certainly illiberal. If McCain was selected as commencement speaker by the graduating class, it was also undemocratic.

  17. James Joyner says:

    Dave: I dunno. When I was in school, we showed up and the speaker spoke. There was no voting involved.

  18. Roger says:

    Why not, in future, we just establish it’s improper to inject overt party politics into a graduation ceremony and not expect a response from the loyal opposition.

  19. legion says:

    Umm… no. I’m not (vigorously) defending the students’ actions, I’m just saying they should not have been unexpected given the situation.

    And for what it’s worth, at my alma mater of Purdue, it was “traditional” that the grad speaker be the university president. Nobody had any say…

  20. Rebecca Ferrell says:

    It is the right of US citizens to protest peacefully. If they wanted to make a statement they are free to do so. Many incidents and situations become political fodder such as Cindy Shehan, Mrs. Martin Luther Kings funeral service Trent Lott’s statement at a dinner for Strom Thurmond, the solider burials where protesters display anti-gay signs.
    Kerry’s references of Tianjin square and mullahs repression, was NOT to say congress men are dangerous or tyrannical. He was speaking of the courage it took to stand up to repression.(“student protests are a necessary and essential part of democratic free expression.”)
    Your opinion shows that you too want to repress others actions. Who are you to squelch the rights of others? Do you attack everyone just because they disagree with you?
    You say it’s rude to protest, yet that is a right.
    I suppose you’d protest for war and that would be okay and no one should argue the point, because they’re wrong and you’re right.
    Kerry said “Though many in the audience â?? including Senator McCain and I â?? were offended by the heckling…”
    That’s not an attack on McCain.
    Our schools are supposed to encourage intellectual curiosity and freedom of thought and speech, and protest as they will. Look at Paris, look at Tehran.
    Remember the Republicans arranged a group of pro Bush people to charge and barracade the place where there was to be a recounting of the ballots in 2000. They stopped it. Was that aggresive?
    The right also represses.