Saturday, April 23, 2005

George W. Bush and Me

Wow, is this dejavu or what?

If you're from Grand Rapids, or if you've been following any of these fellow bloggers, I'm sure you've already noticed that President Bush is going to speak at the Calvin College Commencement Ceremony this spring.

Hmmm...A controversial commencement speaker, known for his right wing views and the head of one of the 3 branches of government. What does this remind me of?

I've been doing a bit of reminiscing on this blog lately anyway, so this seems like it is the perfect launching point for me retell the story of my involvement in the Rehnquist affair. (I know, self indulgent. Those of you who have heard this all before might just want to skip to my analysis at the end.)

My fifth and final year at Calvin, the commencement speaker for graduation was William Rehnquist, Chief for the Supreme Court.

That was also the year Bush became President, after the controversial Supreme Court ruling. I went to Washington DC to protest the inauguration, riding an overnight bus with University of Michigan students. On the bus, and at the protest itself, I heard a lot of complaining about Rehnquist, and I began to wonder if he was someone I wanted speaking at my commencement ceremony.

Returning to Calvin I went to the library and tried to see what sort of information I could find on Rehnquist. And wow…absolutely shocking what I found. A consistent record of racism and ruling against minorities.

I ambushed my friends Bork and Buma in the snack shop and began talking excitedly about how we needed to write an article in Chimes about this. Chimes was the student newspaper, and Bork and Buma were the "Perspective" co-editor.

Bork and Buma took my information to the editor, Vanderklippe, and they talked it over, and then came back with their decisions. First of all they wanted to wait on it. If they ran the article too early, there was the fear that people would just forget about it by the time commencement actually came.

Secondly they wanted someone else to write it. Although I was still writing articles regularly for Chimes, I had technically finished at Calvin in December, and the article might have more weight if it was written by someone who was currently enrolled.

Also there was the concern that since I had been writing anti-Bush and anti-Republican articles all year, people might have begun to write me off as a partisan and not take seriously what I had to say.

I thought all of these points were fair enough, so we decided to wait on the article for a while, and then when spring came, I gave all my notes to Bork, and he wrote this article.

The article touched off a great deal of discussion at Calvin, and some people even began to talk about dis-inviting Rehnquist. Unfortunately because of the late date on which the article ran, realistically I don't think this was ever much of a possibility. If we had known how much people would react to the article, we would obviously have run it earlier in the year, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

The article also upset a lot of people in the administration. Apparently Klippe received a phone call from Calvin’s President saying that the article was poorly written, untrue and completely one-sided. Later Klippe and Bork were asked to meet with the Dean of student life to discuss the sources for the article. When it was revealed that I was the one who had researched the article, the invitation was extended to me to.

And, as I said to Bork, "I can't believe the president said your article was one sided. Of course it was one sided. Everything we ever write for Chimes is one sided. We write on the editorial page."

The sources for the article were a bit sketchy, since it was all based off of stuff I got on the internet. Which was how I researched all my articles. Chimes was a student newspaper with a small readership, and we held ourselves to a low standard in terms of fact checking. (Or maybe I should just speak for myself.)

Apparently the administration was upset that the article didn't cite its sources, but nothing we wrote in Chimes cites sources. In fact, if you look at a regular professional newspaper, how many editorials do you see carefully citing their sources for every fact they bring up?

Anyway, I spent the afternoon in the library, trying to back up everything written in the article with a hard source in a book. I was very pleased not only to find out that almost all of it checked out, but that I was able to find a whole lot more information. However I was not above having a little fun with Bork when we next met. "Good news," I said. "I was able to back up this part and this part, but this part and this part are going to be difficult to defend because, to be honest, I just made those parts up."

"What?" Bork said. "That's my name on that article!"

Klippe, Bork and I went to meet the Dean of student life, but to my surprise (and somewhat disappointment) she barely even brought up the subject of the sources for the article. Perhaps in the time since the angry phone calls had been made, the administration had done some fact checking of its own, and came to the same conclusion as us: most of it backs up.

Instead she just discussed the situation with us. "You realize it is impossible for us to invite a commencement speaker that would make everyone happy," she said. "If we had invited someone like Hillary Clinton, students from the other end of the spectrum would have been upset about that."

We tried to argue that this was not a matter of right-left dynamics, but that the charges of racism that we were making against Rehnquist were something that should disgust anyone regardless of their political affiliation. We went around the block a couple times on this one, and then the Dean moved on to another question.

"OK, I'll be honest with you, had we known everything that we know now, there's a good chance Rehnquist would never have been invited to speak at commencement. But now that it has already been done, and commencement is only two weeks away, what do you expect us to do about it?"

I argued that the administration should take the moral high road, and Rehnquist should be dis-invited. Klippe cut me off and said, "No, I don't agree with that. He should be invited to speak, but not at commencement. A different forum should be set up." I said I would be fine with that as well. But I don't think any of us seriously expected Rehnquist would actually be dis-invited at such notice.

The Dean was very polite to us the whole time, and at times I even got the sense of someone who sympathized privately with our position, but was just doing her job. Since talking was not my strong point, I had been somewhat worried she would just run over us, and I had been determined not to back down on anything before I even walked into her office. In retrospect I might have been a little too aggressive. Bork and Klippe were somewhat better spoken, and Klippe especially did not have any problem in cutting me off when he thought I had gone too far.

At the end of the meeting the Dean asked, almost in an after thought sort of way, for all my sources on Rehnquist, and I handed over my notes. Walking out of her office, I commented to Klippe and Bork that in the process of spending the afternoon in the library backing up the first article, I had found enough information to write a whole new article.

"Fine," said Klippe. "But I don't want it to be another 'Rehnquist equals Racism' article. We've already covered that. I want you to take it to the next step. If Rehnquist is a racist, then what should the college do about it?" So I wrote this article.

Later during the week we were in the Chimes office, and Buma asked if there was any more information we had on Rehnquist. I said I had a bunch more, but I had been asked to write an article with a different focus, so I had left it all out. "Could we write another article with that information?" Buma asked.

"Easily," I said. "But then this week's issue of Chimes would carry two editorials by me on the same subject." There was a brief debate about whether that was a bit of overkill or not. In the end the question was put back to me. "If you guys have the space to run the article, I don't mind writing it," I said. They had the space, so I wrote this article as well.

Other events happened on campus as well. There was a panel discussion about Rehnquist, consisting mostly of professors but Bork was one of the student representatives. There was an ad taken out in the Grand Rapids Press which stated that not everyone in the college supported Rehnquist's actions, and many students and professors signed their names.  The Spark (Calvin alumni magazine) had an article on the controversy.

The Grand Rapids Press did a couple articles on the controversy, and Bork, Buma and I got our picture on the front page. And then that Saturday, an editorial appeared in the Grand Rapids Press criticizing us.

Unfortunately The Grand Rapids Press is not archived online, so I can't link to that editorial, but take my word, it was absolutely awful.

The editorial essential ran like this:
"I've been reading about the controversy at Calvin College, and how many students don't want Rehnquist to speak because he is supposedly a racist. But in the article that ran in this paper earlier in the week, no evidence of Rehnquist being a racist was given. Therefore I can only conclude that the students object to him simply because he is conservative. I remember the days when conservatives like William H. Buckley could speak at Calvin and everyone respected their right to free speech. But now even relatively conservative colleges like Calvin are filled with liberals who are intent upon shouting down anyone who disagrees with them."

Now come on. First of all it had been made very clear, in our articles, in the panel discussion, and in the ad in the Grand Rapids Press that:
1. We objected to Rehnquist based on his racist record, not on his conservative policies.
2. We didn't object to Rehnquist speaking on campus per se, just at his speaking at commencement.

Besides which in the articles we wrote for Chimes we laid out very clearly the reasons we thought he was racist. Now granted all of those points were not repeated in the Grand Rapids Press articles upon which this writer had based his editorial, but come on. I mean god forbid the guy actually takes the time to find out what our position is before writing an editorial attacking us. Remember this wasn't a "letter to the editor", but this was one of the full-length columns. I mean, how lazy do you have to be to write columns in the Grand Rapids Press. We went through the trouble of researching our articles, and we just wrote for a student newspaper. Hire me as a columnist for the GR Press, please.

Since the editorial attacked Buma by name, Buma called up to the Grand Rapids Press and asked for space to respond. They said OK, so he and I wrote up our response. But after saying they would give us space to respond, for one reason or another the Press never actually ran our response. Maybe it was because of the line, "Those of us who wrote articles in the Calvin College newspaper actually researched our position. It would be nice if the Grand Rapids Press held its writers to the same standard."

Because this was never cleared up, the "letters to the editor" page of the Grand Rapids Press was filled with letters complaining about the liberals at Calvin who refused to allow conservatives freedom of speech. This continued for a couple months until an article appeared by a Calvin professor who wrote clearly what our position had actually been.

Bush and Rehnquist: Comparison and contrast

Having Bush speak at commencement is obviously different than Rehnquist for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, the issue of Rehnquist's racism was not widely known initially. I didn't know about it before I started researching it. The readers of the Grand Rapids Press certainly didn't know about it. The administration said repeatedly that they had not known about it when they invited him, and the dean of student life even hinted to us that Rehnquist might not even have been invited in the first place had people been aware about his record.

As with Bush, no one can claim ignorance about this one. If this turns into a headache for Calvin, the administration cannot say, "We didn't know he would be such a controversial figure." Everyone is going into this with their eyes wide open.

Secondly the argument we made against Rehnquist were that his record of racism was a matter of concern for everyone, regardless of political affiliation. Although there was obviously some confusion about this in the larger Grand Rapids community, I think our arguments were fairly well understood at Calvin. Racism is something so terrible that everyone is against it. The only debate was whether our charges against Rehnquist were accurate or not, and once we had backed up our sources, the administration didn't have much of a leg to stand on.

I'd like to say that war, like racism, is something so terribly that every reasonable person is against it. But it appears we don't live in that world yet. When the Iraq war started, polls indicated 75% of the American public was in favor of the war, and it's a fair bet some of those people were at Calvin.

Although support has somewhat waned since then, in the political climate we live in support for the war has somewhat become a matter of party loyalty. And does that mean this war becomes just another political issue which we agree to disagree on? At any rate it would be hard to make an argument against Bush which could be accepted universally across the Calvin spectrum.

If I was still a student, I could almost imagine myself talking to the dean of student life again. "We can't have a commencement speaker that would make everyone happy. You might not like Bush, but imagine if we invited Hillary Clinton. The other half of the students would be upset. You might really hate innocent civilian casualties, but some people really hate nationalized health care."

The other argument the administration is already trying to make is that inviting Bush is simply a matter of Calvin's tradition of inviting a broad variety of speakers to the campus. In other words it's a free speech issue again. This is bullshit. Bork points this out in his post here. Imagine having Noam Chomsky doing the commencement speech.

Or imagine the head of the American Atheists speaking at commencement, and Calvin explaining to its alumni that this is just because Calvin welcomes a variety of opinions. Or imagine Bobby Seale, founder of the black panthers, speaking at commencement.

The commencement speaker reflects the values of the college, and Calvin is lying if they try and claim otherwise. Go look at the descriptions of past commencement speakers in Spark. How often do you see the words, "Although we don't really approve of what they've done, we decided to invite them to give the commencement speech to our graduates anyway"?

So what values does Bush have that the College is attracted to? Well, obviously he's the president of the United States, and the most powerful man in the world. To have Bush speak at a college the size of Calvin is a huge honor. That doesn't mean it's right.

Jim Wallis, in his book "God's Politics" writes, "Human beings do not handle power well. Of all people, religious leaders ought to know that best. Instead, religious leaders are often among the most easily corrupted by power, especially when they get close to political power. Doug Coe, the principal leader of the annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., once told me that the best way to get religious leaders together was to invite them to a meeting with a powerful political leader, hence the sold-out successes of each year's prayer breakfast. He said most church leaders generally ignored Jesus's suggestion to take the humbler places at a banquet and wait until they are invited to come up higher. Instead they jostle for the best positions and places at the events where the powerful gather. It regularly amazes me how good religious folk get so excited about sharing an intimate breakfast with the president and three thousand other people."

Calvin has apparently decided to be seduced by the aura of power.

So what to do about all this? Obviously I'm not a student anymore, and the fight is left up to the new generation. Of course it is not realistic to try and get Bush uninvited. But Calvin President Byker says they want Bush to feel very welcome at Calvin. It would be a pity if Bush felt too welcome. People who start wars, who send thousands of US soldier to their deaths, and bomb civilians, should never be able to go anywhere without being reminded of what they have done. I hope there are some people at Calvin who will remind Bush.


Brian said...

that's an inspiring post

Erik said...

Hi! I'll probably be at commencement—and will be sure to “remind” people about Bush's actions. (I’m not looking forward to sitting between “New Deal” grandpa and “Heritage Foundation” grandpa, though!)

Anonymous said...

Our Commencement Is Not Your Platform