"I haven't heard anyone aroused about me speaking at the New School," John McCain said in April, defending his decision to address Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
Nobody at all, except for virtually the entire crowd at the New School's Madison Square Garden graduation ceremony in New York City. At the beginning of the event, New School President, and former Senator, Bob Kerrey predicted a raucous affair. "Our founding purpose is proudly liberal," he said. "We began as an act of protest."
The school's tradition of dissent carried on today. Scores of New School students held orange signs, and a few banners, reading "McCain Does Not Speak For Me," and "Our Commencement Is Not Your Platform." What began as mild rumblings of disapproval before McCain's speech soon exploded into boos, catcalls and turned backs.
The spark was provided by undergraduate keynote speaker Jean Sara Rohe, a composed, seemingly innocuous jazz musician and singer. After beginning with a short folk song (true to classic graduation speech form) Rohe quickly tossed aside her prepared remarks to directly address McCain.
"This ceremony has become something other than the celebratory gathering it should be," Rohe said. "The Senator does not reflect the ideals on which this school was founded. This was a top-down decision in which the students played no part." The crowd erupted.
"I consider this a time of crisis and I feel compelled to speak," Rohe continued, referencing McCain's speech at Falwell's Liberty University last Saturday.
She paraphrased McCain's words on the folly of youthful stubbornness and ignorance.
"I am young, but I do know that pre-emptive war is dangerous and wrong," she said. "Osama bin Laden has not been found, nor those weapons of mass destruction." The vast majority of the crowd gave her a standing ovation.
"Well, we're having fun now, aren't we?" Kerrey cracked before introducing McCain.
The Senator spoke in a dull monotone, without his usual charisma or charm. He was noticeably deflated by the crowd's harsh reception towards him. Remarks such as "I supported the decision to go to war in Iraq," were met with loud boos.
"I stand that ground because I believed, rightly or wrongly, that my country's interests and values required it."
"Wrongly!" one student boomed from the back. Sitting directly behind us, Maureen Dowd and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times, chuckled.
As McCain droned on, students became increasingly restless. One cried, "This speech sucks!" Several students walked out early.
Summing up the mood of the day, another shouted, "We're graduating, not voting."
Copyright © 2006 The Nation