Bob Kerrey's Anti-War Commencement

When he took over as president of the New School in early 2001, Bob Kerrey must have installed a lightning rod in his office on West 12th Street. First there was trouble with faculty unions. Then came revelations about the killing of civilians during a raid in Vietnam. After his star turn as the Most Angry Man on the 9-11 Commission, he puzzled everyone by agreeing to aid in Mayor Bloomberg's reelection and then publicly mulling his own run. And of course, there was Kerrey's forceful advocacy for invading Iraq.

Now President Bob's in trouble again, for inviting fellow war hero—and many liberals' favorite right-wing, anti-choice, pro-war senator—John McCain to speak at this year's commencement. Kerrey's critics are upset that he's lending his progressive school's platform to a conservative likely to run for president at a time when the public is abandoning the war that both men so enthusiastically sought.

Fair enough. But it's worth noting that two years and 1,700 U.S. deaths ago, when the war was a more popular enterprise, Kerrey presided over a commencement at MSG where the speaker was Ted Sorenson, a known critic of the invasion and occupation.

In a quavering voice, unable to move any faster than a shuffle because of age or illness, Sorenson delivered a full-scale condemnation of the war just feet from where one of its cheerleaders, Kerrey, was sitting. Among the passages to which Kerrey politely listened were:

    ...This is a cry from the heart, a lamentation for the loss of this country's goodness and therefore its greatness. Future historians studying the decline and fall of America will mark this as the time the tide began to turn - toward a mean-spirited mediocrity in place of a noble beacon. For me the final blow was American guards laughing over the naked, helpless bodies of abused prisoners in Iraq. ...

    The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us. ... The stain on our credibility, our reputation for decency and integrity, will not quickly wash away. ...

    What has happened to our country? We have been in wars before, without resorting to sexual humiliation as torture, without blocking the Red Cross, without insulting and deceiving our allies and the U.N., without betraying our traditional values, without imitating our adversaries, without blackening our name around the world. ...

    Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein - politically, economically, diplomatically, much as we succeeded in isolating Khadafy, Marcos, Mobutu and a host of other dictators over the years, we have isolated ourselves. We are increasingly alone in a dangerous world in which millions who once respected us now hate us. ...

    All this is rationalized as part of the war on terror. But abusing prisoners in Iraq, denying detainees their legal rights in Guantanamo, even American citizens, misleading the world at large about Saddam's ready stockpiles of mass destruction and involvement with al Qaeda at 9/11, did not advance by one millimeter our efforts to end the threat of another terrorist attack upon us. On the contrary, our conduct invites and incites new attacks and new recruits to attack us. ...

    We are no longer the world's leaders on matters of international law and peace. After we stopped listening to others, they stopped listening to us. A nation without credibility and moral authority cannot lead, because no one will follow.

At the end, Sorenson was cheered. Kerrey returned to the podium, made a one-line semi-rebuttal that earned him scattered applause, and then went on with the program. Someone read our names, there was a little music, and then some of us went out for beers—in the afternoon on a week-day, mind you! Ah, such wild days.

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