Thursday, September 18, 2014

Politics of graduation protests distract from seniors’ success

5/14/2014

It’s no surprise to find politics just about everywhere during an election year. Even so, partisan fighting has managed to nestle itself in an unlikely home this spring: Graduation ceremonies.

When a controversial Obama Administration official was announced as the guest speaker for an Oklahoma City police department ceremony last month, protestors were quick to voice opposition. Eric Holder, U.S. attorney general and the nation’s top law enforcement officer, apparently was the last person the red-state residents wanted to be given a position of esteem at the ceremony.

It’s no surprise to find politics just about everywhere during an election year. Even so, partisan fighting has managed to nestle itself in an unlikely home this spring: Graduation ceremonies.

When a controversial Obama Administration official was announced as the guest speaker for an Oklahoma City police department ceremony last month, protestors were quick to voice opposition. Eric Holder, U.S. attorney general and the nation’s top law enforcement officer, apparently was the last person the red-state residents wanted to be given a position of esteem at the ceremony.

Holder has been heavily criticized by the political right for failing to cooperate with a House investigation of the U.S. Justice Department’s Operation Fast and Furious, which involved “gunwalking” across the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as his role in scandals involving the Internal Revenue Service and domestic spying programs aimed at civilians and journalists.

One House legislator said Holder lecturing young police academy cadets would be “ironic.”

“Oklahoma City’s newest law enforcement officers should treat their duties of faithfully protecting and serving our community with the honor and dignity of their positions, not like ... Holder’s tactics of obfuscation and redirection of blame,” U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, said. “I do not think our state has ever asked a federal official who is currently in Contempt of Congress to speak to our graduates.”

Others in the state apparently agreed, with many planning to protest outside the ceremony. (Obama opponent Mitt Romney won all 77 counties in Oklahoma in the 2012 presidential election, if that gives an indication of the state’s partisan leanings.)

But it was all for naught.

A day before the graduation, Holder’s handlers announced the attorney general would not be available to speak because of an unexpected scheduling conflict.

Of course, folks in heavily Republican states aren’t the only ones targeting graduation speakers because of their political leanings and controversial careers.

Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state under Republican President George W. Bush, was forced earlier this month to withdraw from speaking at a graduation ceremony at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Students and faculty had viciously attacked Rice as a “war criminal” for her role in the Iraq War.

Carmelo Cintrón Vivas, a Rutgers University student protester and a leader of the “Cancel Condi” or “No Rice Campaign,” explained the opposition to Rice’s appearance, as well as her speaking fee for the ceremony.

“Someone who has such a tainted record as a public servant in this country should not go to our university, speak for 15 minutes, get an honorary law degree for trying to circumvent the law, and receive $35,000,” he said. “We believe that that is wrongful, and that’s not fair to any student graduating or not graduating at Rutgers University.”

Rice, who serves as a faculty member and top official at Stanford University and is on the board of directors of the file hosting service Dropbox, bowed out of the ceremony tactfully, saying, “I have defended America’s belief in free speech and the exchange of ideas. These values are essential to the health of our democracy. But that is not what is at issue here. As a professor for 30 years at Stanford University and as its former provost and chief academic officer, I understand and embrace the purpose of the commencement ceremony and I am simply unwilling to detract from it in any way.”

First Lady Michelle Obama recently expressed similar sentiments, when she was pressured to alter her plans to speak Saturday at a joint ceremony for the graduating seniors of the Topeka school district. This time, however, the uproar over the chosen speaker had less to do with politics.

Parents and students protested Obama’s planned appearance, saying her presence would distract from the accomplishments of the graduating seniors, as well as limit the number of family members allowed to attend the ceremony because of increased security and media attendance.

Both valid points.

Ultimately, Obama and the school district caved to pressure, graciously rescheduling the first lady’s appearance for a “senior recognition day” ceremony Friday in Topeka, though the change slightly derails efforts for Obama to help mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

Obama seemed a natural choice for the speaking engagement. The historic Brown v. Board of Education originated in Topeka, and Obama is the wife of the nation’s first black president — who himself has ties to Kansas. Perhaps that’s why the school district invited the first lady to speak in the first place.

Lost, of course, amid the outcries over Holder, Rice and Obama daring to speak to graduates: the students who are supposed to be celebrating some of their biggest accomplishments to date and embarking on a whole new chapter of life.

Politics and personal outrage — like high school — can be exhausting. We should be cautious about teaching our graduates to embrace them.

Tommy Felts,

managing editor

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