President Bush got a lesson from a group of recent high school graduates. They were Presidential Scholars, a program designed “to recognize and provide leadership development experiences for some of America’s most outstanding graduating high school seniors.”
The 141 Presidential Scholars were being honored at the White House. One of them, Mari Oye, from Wellesley, Mass., describes what happened: “The president walked in and gave us a short speech, saying that as we went on into our careers, it was important to treat others as we would like to be treated. And he told us that we would have to make choices we would be able to live with for the rest of our lives. And so, I said to the president, 'Several of us made a choice, and we would like you to have this,' and handed him the letter.” It was a letter Mari Oye had handwritten. It read:
“As members of the Presidential Scholars class of 2007, we have been told that we represent the best and brightest of our nation. Therefore, we believe we have a responsibility to voice our convictions. We do not want America to represent torture. We urge you to do all in your power to stop violations of the human rights of detainees, to cease illegal renditions and to apply the Geneva Conventions to all detainees, including those designated enemy combatants.”
The letter was signed by close to 50 high school seniors, more than a third of the Presidential Scholars.
Mari Oye described Bush’s reaction to the letter: “He read down the letter. He got to the part about torture. He looked up, and he said, 'America doesn't torture people.’ And I said, 'If you look specifically at what we said, we said, we ask you to cease illegal renditions. Please remove your signing statement to the McCain anti-torture bill.' ”
At that point, he just said, 'America doesn't torture people’ again.”
In fact, after Bush signed the bill that outlawed the torture of detainees last year, he quietly issued a signing statement reserving the right to bypass the law, as he has more than 1,100 times, issuing more signing statements than all U.S. presidents combined.
Mari Oye knows a little bit about detention. Not high school detention, but detention, Guantanamo-style. Mari recounted this to the president: “I said that for me personally, the issue of detainee rights also had a lot of importance, because my grandparents had been interned during World War II for being Japanese American.” The government has since apologized for imprisoning more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during WWII.
Mari said she was also inspired to act by her mother, Willa Michener. She, too, was a Presidential Scholar — 40 years ago, in 1968 — and wanted to confront President Lyndon Johnson with her opposition to the Vietnam War. She deferred to a teacher, who Mari said “stressed it was important to stay quiet when you’re in the presence of the president,” and has regretted it since. Mari called her mother as soon as she left the White House to tell her what she had done. “She was actually in the Holocaust Museum in the last room when I called her to say that we had given the letter. She didn’t know there was a letter beforehand … And she said that she walked out into the bright sunlight with tears streaming down her face, but since a lot of people walk out of the Holocaust Museum that way, you know, no one noticed anything out of the ordinary.”
Another Presidential Scholar, Leah Anthony Libresco, from Long Island, N.Y., helped write the letter. She, like Mari, is remarkably eloquent. “If I’m going to be in the room with the president, I’ve got to say something, because silence betokens consent, and there’s a lot going on I don’t want to consent to.” Her middle name, Anthony, comes from the famous suffragette Susan B. Anthony.
Afraid that Mari’s letter would be confiscated before she was able to deliver it to the president, Leah had a second handwritten copy of it — yes, up her sleeve. She handed it to a reporter, as she described later in a blog, “at The No Child Left Behind photo op for which the Scholars were apparently supposed to be a backdrop.”
With young leaders like Mari Oye and Leah Anthony Libresco speaking truth to power at so young an age, and demonstrating such eloquence, courage and discipline, the only thing that looks likely to get left behind are politicians such as George Bush and his torture policies.