Doctorow Booed

Newsday — Author booed for anti-Bush remarks

E.L. Doctorow, one of the most celebrated writers in America, was nearly booed off the stage at Hofstra University Sunday when he gave a commencement address lambasting President George W. Bush and effectively calling him a liar.

Booing that came mainly from the crowd in the stands became so intense that Doctorow stopped speaking at one point, showing no emotion as he stood silently and listened to the jeers. Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz intervened, and called on the audience to allow him to finish. He did, although some booing persisted.

Doctorow, who spent virtually all of his 20-minute address in Hempstead criticizing Bush, told the crowd that like himself the president is a storyteller. But “sadly they are not good stories this president tells,” he said. “They are not good stories because they are not true.” That line provoked the first boos, along with scattered cheers.

“One story he told was that the country of Iraq had nuclear and biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction and was intending shortly to use them on us,” he said. “That was an exciting story all right, it was designed to send shivers up our spines. But it was not true.

“Another story was that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was in league with the terrorists of al-Qaida,” he said. “And that turned out to be not true. But anyway we went off to war on the basis of these stories.”

Those lines provoked an outburst of boos so loud the “Ragtime” author stopped the speech. Rabinowitz approached the podium and called for calm. “We value open discussion and debate,” he said. “For the sake of your graduates, please let him finish.”

Some students and most of the faculty responded with a standing ovation, and Doctorow resumed speaking. He attacked Bush for giving the rich tax breaks, doing “a very poor job of combating terrorism” and allowing the government to subpoena libraries “to see what books you’ve been taking out.”

Many parents and relatives of the more than 1,300 undergraduates were livid over the address, saying afterward that a college graduation was not the place for a political speech. “If this would have happened in Florida, we would have taken him out” of the stadium, said Frank Mallafre, who traveled from Miami for his granddaughter’s graduation.

Regardless of what one thinks of the administration’s Iraq policy, a graduation address is hardly the appropriate forum for such a “debate” (it’s odd to use that term when only one speaker is invited), let alone when the speaker isn’t even knowledgable about the subject. A few years ago, I attended a graduation speech where Zell Miller (recently retired as Georgia’s governor and not yet appointed to the Senate) had been invited to talk in support of an education lottery, an issue which was the subject of an upcoming referendum and favored strongly by the school’s chancellor. In that case, at least, Miller was an expert on the subject (having led the model program in Georgia) and was invited with that objective. Still, even though I strongly supported the lottery (which lost in the polls), I thought it was highly inappropriate to use a graduation speech for electioneering.

Graduation speeches should be, above all, brief and uncontroversial. The attendees are a captive audience of people there to receive hard-earned diplomas, watch their loved ones receive said diplomas, and faculty members forced to endure same. The speaker should deliver two or three amusing anecdotes, some pabulum about what a big achievement it was to finish school, the promise of greater things to come, and an ode to the parents for the sacrifices they’ve made. They should then get off stage and let everyone see what they came to see–which wasn’t them.

FILED UNDER: Education, Terrorism, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven says:

    One would think that a noted author could provide a witty and intelligent speech sans the politics.

  2. Anonymous says:

    So Cheney was wrong as well when he made his speech in N. Dakota and shrub’s political comments at LSU was beyond the pale as well.
    Let’s not forget the R’s apperacheck speaking at places like Bob Jones U. Did they keep their speeches “brief and uncontroversial”
    The error was the attempt by people to deny the right of the invited speaker to express himself.
    If they had any manners they could have sat in silent protest, as protesters at LSU did, or left.
    But to attempt to silence the speaker smacks of the brown shirt bully boys tactics to silence those who do not follow the leader blindly off the cliff.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Anonymous Coward,

    I’m not a big fan of inviting controversial politicians to address graduation exercises. But when one invites the President or Vice President, there’s a pretty long tradition that it’ll be used as a platform to announce some new public policy initiative and, usually, it’s done in a friendly forum.

    I don’t know the background of the Doctorow invitation but I doubt they intended to get an anti-Bush diatribe when they brought in a fiction writer.

  4. Paul says:

    I was going to make the point before but since AW’s comments, I’ll make it now…

    At least, in your example they invited a politician and he was talking about something that related to education.

    it is not like it took the time at a graduation to talk about Welfare reform or the environment.

    Some people have no perspective.

  5. Brett says:

    Ted Sorensen got booed at Oswego’s graduation for unfavorable comparisons of Bush to Kennedy. I wasn’t there, but I heard that it wasn’t the students who booed (primarily), but family members.

    My basic view: the more speech, the better, but you shouldn’t be surprised when you get comments from the crowd. . .

  6. Moe Lane says:

    “…R’s apperacheck speaking…”

    Apparatchik, you empty-headed parrot of other people’s bile.

  7. Anonymous says:

    ..R’s apperacheck speaking…”


    Well spelling aside you agree that this is what they are. This is the first step on your road to sanity.

  8. bram says:

    if i was one of the students graduating, i would’ve been embarassed not by Doctorow for telling the truth, but by the parents who were expressing their ignorance.

  9. coofie says:

    Brett, you are correct. Mr. Sorensen got booed at Oswego. However, most people do not know that (a) he was sought after by President Stanley and MANY others responsible for coordinating their graduation commencement, (b) as busy and tired as he was/is (keeping in mind he is 76 years old and has extremely limited eyesight due to a stroke he suffered two years ago which makes traveling, writing, reading and public speaking very difficult) and having just returned from several trips overseas, he waived his usual speaking fee and accepted their offer (he loves speaking/meeting with students), (c) contrary to what she represented to the Press, President Stanley received an advance copy of his speech, and (d) not once did she reveal to Mr. Sorensen that the Oswego audience (guests as opposed to students, who apologized to him after the speechr and thanked him for giving it) would not take kindly to his speech. So, either way she wanted controversy. The only question is (a) whether she wanted his word to get out because she supports his views or (b) she dislikes him and his historical past and views so much that she wanted the incident to occur.

    Unlike the author, however, everyone familiar with Mr. Sorensen knows very well what to expect from him, therefore in my opinion, President Stanley, NOT Mr. Sorensen, is at fault for the Oswego incident. Had they not known what his speech was about, that would be a different story. But they did.

  10. Scott says:

    For those who support Doctorow, it was inappropriate because the invited speaker is not there to provide a political diatribe, but to congratulate the graduates on their accomplishments. Another point is that this is a captive audience, both graduates and family/friends. They did not come to hear some anti-Bush speech, they came to see the graduate get their degree.
    The students and family members had every right to voice their disapproval if this author did not have enough common sense to realize that his speech was inappropriate to the occasion.

  11. Daniel Shea says:

    The news that E.L. Doctorow, one of the most celebrated writers in America, was nearly booed off the stage at Hofstra is reassuring that American Liberalism often referred to as Marxism is on its way to the junk pile of history. This is the second report of liberal speakers being booed at graduation ceremonies and I am sure that this is a trend. More Americans each day are beginning to realize how dangerous liberalism has actually become. American left-wing liberalism has become a danger to America and the survival of civilization. This realization had to eventually come.

  12. Myrla says:

    Better liberalism than fascism.

  13. Dan Powers says:

    I love it–liberals boo and it’s freedom of expression. Convservatives boo and it’s fascism!?