After Rutgers University President Robert Barchi refused to rescind a commencement speech invitation to former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Ms. Rice said on Saturday that she won’t appear at Rutgers after all.
“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” Ms. Rice wrote in a Facebook post. “Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”
Coming only a week after Attorney General Eric Holder cancelled at the last minute a contested speech at a police academy graduation, Rice’s decision to forgo the appearance was gracious enough. But it also became an example of post-Iraq War polarization in US politics, where protesters are able to squelch esteemed Americans from speaking their piece.
After the Rutgers faculty and anti-war activists berated the university administration for extending the invitation to Rice – referencing her “efforts to mislead the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq” – the elected student assembly voted 25-17 to welcome Rice to the campus.
On Friday, student anti-war demonstrators assailed university president Robert Barchi, complaining about treatment at protests and demanding once again that he pull the invitation. Dr. Barchi declined.
In an earlier statement to the university community, Barchi said that the university could not in good conscience cave to demands from those representing a particular political viewpoint.
“Free speech and academic freedom cannot be determined by any group,” Mr. Barchi wrote. “They cannot insist on consensus or popularity.”
To anti-war activists, Rice is both a practical player in the Iraq War (for one, she approved waterboarding techniques as national security adviser) and also a symbol of what they perceive as America’s immoral and deceitful entrée into a long and bloody war in the Middle East.
More than 4,000 US soldiers died in the war, which finally wound down in December 2011, when the last US troops left. The number of Iraqis who died is not exactly known, but Iraq War logs published by WikiLeaks counted 109,032 Iraqi military and civilian deaths from 2003 to 2009.
“Rice probably has a lot of advice on perseverance, dedication and hard work that she can offer to this year’s graduating class, but what she chose to do with those qualities is certainly questionable to us,” the Daily Targum (the school’s student newspaper) opined on its editorial page, in favor of rescinding Rice’s invitation.
To other students, however, Rice is one of the country’s greatest living historical figures – the first African-American female secretary of State, a Stanford political economist, and a concert pianist who has played for Queen Elizabeth.
“If Rutgers were to rescind Rice’s invitation, the University would be remembered as the school that chose to invite [reality TV star] Snooki to speak at an event, but revoke Rice’s,” the Daily Targum paraphrased one student as saying at a campus debate this week.
Reporting from a different student debate, the Daily Targum wrote that a student named Joe Cashin supported Rice’s invitation, and suggested that the school was actually witnessing an internecine faculty squabble where professors wanted “to chip away at [president Robert] Barchi” by opposing Rice’s invitation. He added, “I am in favor of her coming to campus because most of 2014’s class want her to come to campus.”
Fellow student Sherif Ibrahim disagreed, asking, “Do we really want to honor someone who was responsible for a war of choice and not a war of necessity?” Rice would get a $35,000 honorarium and honorary diploma, but such awards are extended to all Rutgers commencement speakers.
If Rice has become a lightning rod to parts of the American left, Attorney General Eric Holder is playing a similar role on the right.
Also a historic African-American figure – the first black US Attorney General – Mr. Holder is a common foil for gun owners and tea party sympathizers for, among various skirmishes, his battles with primarily Southern states over voter ID laws, as well as his liberal positions on gun control and illegal immigration.
The Republican-led House has held Holder in contempt for road-blocking an investigation into a covert gun-running sting called Fast and Furious.
Last week, Mr. Holder suddenly canceled a speech to a group of graduating police cadets in Oklahoma City, after conservative groups vowed to stage a protest of hundreds that could have disrupted the ceremony.
“I do not think our state has ever asked a federal official who is currently in contempt of Congress to speak to our graduates,” chided Rep. James Lankford.
In a story about the cancelled graduation speech, Politico quoted an anonymous Justice official who said Holder “needed to attend a meeting about a national-security-related case that delayed his departure for Oklahoma.”