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2006-06-09

Student Takes on McCain Over Iraq War Support at New School Graduation

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We play what may have been the most controversial speech at a college campus this spring when 21-year-old student Jean Sara Rohe blasted Sen. John McCain (R–AZ)–who delivered the keynote address at the ceremony–over his support for the Iraq war. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to what may have been the most controversial speech at a college campus this spring.

It occurred at the New School graduation ceremony in New York where Republican Senator John McCain gave the keynote address. McCain was invited to speak by New School President Bob Kerrey, the former Senator and longtime friend of McCain.

Nearly 1,000 people signed a petition urging Kerrey to rescind McCain’s invitation. The protests continued even at the graduation ceremony when one of the student speakers directly confronted McCain over his support for war. The student was Jean Sara Rohe, a 21-year-old graduate from New Jersey.

  • Jean Sara Rohe,speaking at the New School graduation ceremony.

Soon after Senator John McCain’s chief of staff, Mark Salter, wrote a comment on the website HuffingtonPost.com attacking the student.

Salter wrote, "The only person you have succeeded in making look like an idiot is yourself." He went on to tell the student protesters: "You might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it very unlikely any of you will ever posses the one small fraction of the character of John McCain."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: She began her commencement address by singing a song.

JEAN SARA ROHE: [singing] If all the world were peaceful now / And forever more / Peaceful at the surface / And peaceful at the core / All the joy within my heart / Would be so free to soar / And we’re living on a living planet / Circling the living star / I don’t know where we’re going / but I know we’re going far / We can change the universe / By being who we are / And we’re living on a living planet / Circling a living star.

Welcome, everyone, on this beautiful afternoon. I only have five minutes, so I’d appreciate it if you’d — thanks. Welcome everyone, on this beautiful afternoon to the commencement ceremony for the New School class of 2006. That was an excerpt of the song I learned as a child called "Living Planet," by Jay Manquita. I chose to begin my address this way because, as always, but especially now, we are living in a time of violence, of war, of injustice. I am thinking of our brothers and sisters in Iraq, in Darfur, in Sri Lanka, in Mogadishu, in Israel, Palestine, right here in the United States, and many, many other places around the world. And my deepest wish on this day, on all days, is for peace, justice, and true freedom for all people.

The song says, "We can change the universe by being who we are," and I believe that it really is just that simple. Right now, I’m going to be who I am and digress from my previously prepared remarks that I had been working on for the past several weeks. I am disappointed that I have to abandon the things I had wanted to speak about, but I feel that it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge the fact that this ceremony has become something other than the celebratory gathering that it was intended to be due to all the media attention surrounding John McCain’s presence here today and the student and faculty outrage generated by his invitation to speak.

The senator does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded. Not only this — 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 achievements. What is interesting and bizarre about this whole situation is that Senator McCain has stated that he will be giving the same speech at all three universities where he has been invited to speak recently, of which ours is the last, those being Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, Columbia University, and finally, here at the New School. For this reason, I have unusual foresight concerning the themes of his address today.

Based on the speech he gave at the other institutions, Senator McCain will tell us today that dissent and disagreement are our civic and moral obligation in times of crisis, and I agree. I consider this a time of crisis, and I feel obligated to speak. Senator McCain will also tell us about his strong-headed self-assuredness in his youth which prevented him from hearing the ideas of others, and in so doing, he will imply that those of us who are young are too naive to have valid opinions and open ears. I am young, and although I don’t profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong, that George Bush’s agenda in Iraq is not worth the many lives lost. And I know that despite all the havoc that my country has wrought overseas in my name, Osama bin Laden still has not been found, nor have those weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, Senator McCain will tell us that we, those of us who are Americans, have nothing to fear from each other. I agree strongly with this, but I take it one step further. We have nothing to fear from anyone on this living planet. Fear is the greatest impediment to the achievement of peace. We have nothing to fear from people who are different from us, from people who live in other countries, even from the people who run our government, and this we should have learned from our educations here. We can speak truth to power. We can allow our humanity always to come before our nationality. We can refuse to let fear invade our lives and to goad us on to destroy the lives of others.

These words I speak do not reflect the arrogance of a young, strong-headed woman, but belong to a line of great progressive thought, a history in which the founders of this institution play an important part. I speak today, even through my nervousness, out of a need to honor those voices that came before me, and I hope that we graduates can all strive to do the same. Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: New School student, Jean Sara Rohe speaking at the university graduation ceremony just a few weeks ago.

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