McCain Gets Chilly Reception at New School

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was cheered for his commencement address at Liberty University and jeered at The New School in New York. Some criticize the speeches as a political ploy ahead of the 2008 election.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This week, Senator John McCain pulled off a feat of political triangulation, by giving the same graduation speech to a conservative religious institution, an Ivy League school, and a liberal New York university. The Senator got a warm reception at Liberty University in Virginia, faced a few protestors at Columbia, and yesterday, at the New School University in Manhattan, NPR's Robert Smith has that story...

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Ah, the traditions of graduation. The ceremony. The names...

Unidentified Man: Denise Walsh.

SMITH: And of course the heckling of the commencement speaker.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I supported the decision to go to war in Iraq.

(Soundbite of booing)

Sen. MCCAIN: Many Americans did not.

(Soundbite of booing)

SMITH: The voice is Senator John McCain's. And the boos are a good portion of the 2006 graduating class of the New School University. For weeks, students at this progressive institution in Greenwich Village have been protesting the choice of a pro-Iraq War, anti-abortion Republican as their commencement speaker. They gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to get him dis-invited.

McCain, for his part, seemed resigned to the controversy. Most of his speech was devoted to championing the right of protest, and the value of civil discourse.

Sen. MCCAIN: So let us argue with each other then. By all means, let us argue. Are differences are not petty. They often involve cherished beliefs.

(Soundbite of heckling)

Sen. MCCAIN: Let us defend those beliefs.

(Soundbite of heckling)

Sen. MCCAIN: Let's do so sincerely and strenuously.

SMITH: But the message didn't exactly capture the audience. Dozens of graduates turned their backs on McCain as he spoke. Others held up orange signs that said: Our commencement is not your platform. As the speech went on, the taunting escalated. One man shouted, Go home. Another yelled at the politician that they were graduating, not voting.

Sen. MCCAIN: We have nothing to fear from each other.

Unidentified Man: Sit down!

(Soundbite of heckling)

SMITH: The scene was not what the president of the New School, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, had imagined when he invited McCain to speak. Kerrey said he picked the Arizona senator because he was one of the most important leaders in the world, and could bring some visibility to the school. There was clearly something in it for McCain, too. When he was challenged about his decision to speak at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, McCain bragged that he was speaking at the liberal New School, also.

This political balancing act didn't go over well in New York. Some of the graduates of the New School said they felt like they were props in a future presidential campaign. Jean Sara Rohe, a music school graduate, tossed out the speech she was going to give at commencement. And instead, addressed McCain.

Ms. JEAN SARA ROHE (Graduate, New School University): The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Ms. ROHE: Not only this...

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Ms. ROHE: Please. Not only this, but his invitation was a top down decision that did not take into account the desires and interests of the student body, on an occasion that is supposed to honor us above all, and to commemorate our achievement.

SMITH: When McCain finished speaking, he received a standing ovation from a handful of parents in the audience, while many of their sons and daughters jeered.

(Soundbite of applause, cheering and booing)

SMITH: Then an embarrassed Bob Kerrey took the protesting students to task.

Mr. BOB KERREY (President, New School University): There will come a time in your life when the question occurs: Will you stand, not heckling from an audience where no bravery is required...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. KERREY: But will you stand and say what you believe when you know, when you know that heckling and laughter and boos will arise?

SMITH: After the hat tossing and thousands of pictures, some of the less political members of the New School's graduating class were left to wonder what happened. Evan Pinto(ph), a liberal arts major, says he felt like his graduation ceremony was hijacked.

Mr. EVAN PINTO (Graduate, New School University): You know, I just spent the last three years of my life sitting at my desk doing homework. And I wanted some recognition for that. I didn't want have to listen to somebody think about what he thinks about what the world needs to do. I put a lot of solo, isolated work into myself the last three years, and I want recognition for that.

SMITH: Instead, his graduation somehow turned into a political debate.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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