McCain vs. the New School

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Public fisticuffs come fast and furious on the web, and there is no better example than the sudden outburst of chatter about John McCain's speech at the commencement ceremonies of The New School. During his address to students of the liberal New York City institution last week, McCain was booed and jeered by some of the students. He was given a gentler rebuke from the podium by one of the student speakers, Jean Rohe, who said McCain's support for the Iraq war "does not reflect the ideals upon which this university was founded." McCain himself seemed unfazed by the remarks, but then Rohe elaborated on her remarks in the Huffington Post, saying she was going to make McCain look like an idiot. McCain's top staffer, Mark Salter, unloaded a fusillade on The Huffington Post, denouncing the mocking students as lacking "one small fraction" of McCain's character and calling Rohe an "idiot" herself. Then Rohe, predictably, wrote a response to Salter. Back in the olden, dead-trees days, Salter might have written an op-ed column, and after a few days Rohe might have responded. Now each side can fire off a written piece in the heat of the moment.

Apart from the blogosphere brawl it has caused, McCain's recent graduation speaking tour was pure political genius. By choosing to speak first at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, McCain helped make amends with the fundamentalists he infuriated back in 2000 when he denounced Falwell as an "agent of intolerance." And by delivering the same speech at Liberty University and the New School, McCain bolstered his credentials as a "straight shooter" with a political class that's easily impressed by such pirouettes.

There's nothing novel in the idea of a politician saying the same thing to politically divergent audiences. Bill Clinton did it in 1992, delivering the same message in white Macomb County, Michigan, as he did in black Detroit. And though McCain's call for tolerance and civility was not especially controversial or courageous, the Republican presidential aspirant got the best of all possible worlds — making amends to Falwell, sparking attacks from Greenwich Village lefties and generating tons of press attention in the process. Even better, the students might actually remember what got said at their commencement speech — which is more than I can say for Isaac Asimov, the late science fiction writer, who addressed my class at Columbia College, or Michel Sovern, the university president, who addressed the entire school. I have no idea what either talked about.

As for what actually got said from the podium, McCain's speech was perfectly sensible. He made a case that the United States has real enemies and that we shouldn't be fighting with each other. And what his critic, Jean Rohe, said was perfectly reasonable too. She made a call for peace, denounced the war, and noted that neither Osama bin Laden nor any weapons of mass destruction had been found.

Her remarks actually echoed those of another famous student speaker. In 1969, Hillary Rodham at Wellesley used her speech to chide the women's college's commencement speaker, Republican Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, for his support of the Vietnam War. Rodham took it to Brooke in a way that's surprisingly similar to how Rohe took it to McCain.

Unlike some protesters in the audience who were just rude and childish, Rohe was respectful. And saying that McCain didn't reflect the values of The New School seems undebatable. The school was founded in 1919 by philosopher John Dewey, historian Charles Beard and social commentator Thorstein Veblen, all of whom were deeply disillusioned by World War I and gave the school a pacifist streak that seems hopelessly naive in retrospect. Beard, best known as co-author with his wife, Mary, of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which argued that the founders were operating more out of monetary self-interest than democratic ideals, went on to be a vocal critic of Franklin Roosevelt's efforts to help the Allies during World War II.

The New School's founders may have been wrong, but Rohe read them right. Afterwards, the university's president, Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic Senator who lost a limb in Vietnam and is a longtime friend of McCain, praised both speakers' courage, which seems appropriate. In these internet dustups, both sides, it's worth remembering, usually have a point.