Rove Passes Up Commencement Speech at Choate After the Students Object
WALLINGFORD, Conn. - When 17-year-old Alessio Manti heard that Karl Rove, the former chief political adviser to President Bush, would be delivering the commencement address this spring to his class at Choate Rosemary Hall - the elite boarding school that produced such liberal giants as John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson - he was shocked.
"I thought it was a joke," Mr. Manti said. "Commencement is not the place for him."
He was not alone. Although Mr. Rove played a major role in helping President Bush capture two terms in the White House, he could not gain the support of the senior class here. With students threatening to walk out on graduation, the school announced on Monday that Mr. Rove would not speak at commencement.
Instead, he has accepted an invitation to speak on campus next month, said the school's headmaster, Edward J. Shanahan. "He was more than understanding," Dr. Shanahan wrote in an e-mail message to students. "He was gracious and generous in his thinking about you and 'your day.' "
In a telephone interview on Monday, Dr. Shanahan emphasized that he never rescinded Mr. Rove's invitation and would not have done so even if Mr. Rove were not willing to reschedule. Dr. Shanahan will take Mr. Rove's place at graduation.
The change caps a monthlong saga at Choate, where Mr. Rove was not the first choice as commencement speaker. School officials turned to him after trying to book Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia.
At a meeting last week, a clear majority of the graduating class of about 230 said it opposed Mr. Rove's invitation, students who were at the meeting said.
In an editorial titled "Rove in '08: We Think Not," the campus newspaper, The News, urged the school to withdraw the invitation.
"Faculty members approached me and said, 'We really need you to do something,' " the editor of the paper, Elliott August, said in an interview. "People around our community were really heated about this."
Scores of students banded together on the social networking Web site Facebook to protest Mr. Rove's appearance. On Choate's 450-acre campus, dotted with Georgian-style dormitories, students whispered about walking out on graduation, turning their chairs around when Mr. Rove took the podium or wearing T-shirts with a message protesting the speech.
"I myself thought of not going," said Jack Fallon, 18, a senior from Santa Rosa, Calif.
Other students said they were ready to explore other options, like bringing the comedian Stephen Colbert to campus to speak at an alternative commencement.
Politics at Choate have been known to trend decidedly blue. In a mock election in 2004, Senator John Kerry was the favorite of students over President Bush by 22 percentage points. Among the faculty, Mr. Kerry got 86 percent of the vote.
"It wasn't really about that he was a Republican," said Jillian Ruben, the president of the Choate Young Democrats, said of Mr. Rove. "It was that I feel that he goes against all the things that Choate has spent the last four years teaching me."
Until Monday, it appeared that the school was not prepared to replace Mr. Rove. In the Sunday editions of The Hartford Courant, Dr. Shanahan wrote an article for the op-ed page titled "Rove Deserves to Be Heard."
"It is my hope that, even amid the swarm of controversy that surrounds him, Mr. Rove will identify for our students a perspective that will encourage them to engage politics more, and to put their shoulders to the wheels of leadership our country so desperately needs," the headmaster wrote.
But on Monday, Dr. Shanahan said that after meeting with students last week and reading e-mail messages from them, it was clear that students "wanted to have an opportunity to engage him about his public life and not just hear him give them a parting message."
Students were also worried that the graduation might be interrupted by outsiders, he said. Dr. Shanahan said he relayed their concerns to Mr. Rove over the weekend and asked, "What about coming up here at another time?"
"He said, 'Sure,' " Dr. Shanahan said.
In a statement released by the school, Mr. Rove said he was looking forward to visiting Choate next month.
"I would not want 12 minutes of remarks to be used as an excuse by a small group to mar what should be a wonderful day of celebration for the members of the 2008 graduating class and their families," he said.
Mr. Rove was one of President Bush's longest-serving and closest aides - and also one of the most controversial - when he left the White House in August. Students said that among their issues with Mr. Rove were his aggressive campaign tactics.
Mr. Manti, one of the students organizing opposition to Mr. Rove, said on Monday that he was "extremely appreciative" that the school changed course.
But not everyone felt that way.
"No one really gave him a chance," said Christophe Lirola, 17, a senior who is a member of the Choate Young Republicans.
But he found solace in what he called disappointing news.
"I do think it says a lot about Karl Rove," he concluded, "the fact that he's still willing to come to campus."
© 2008 The New York Times