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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 June, 2004, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Graduation gets political
By Damian Fowler
BBC correspondent in New York

Singer Bono speaks at University of Pennsylvania graduation
Bono urged graduates to take "bold measures"
No politics please, we're graduating.

That's the usual rule of thumb for commencement, a fancy American word for graduation.

It is supposed to be the moment when bright and not-so-bright young sparks are handed their diplomas and degrees and then sent out into the world with words of inspiration by speakers great or good.

It is in full swing right now.

But this year's life lessons have given way to politics. Commencement speeches have been making national headlines.

It is a sign of the times when the commencement address is deployed as a political weapon by guest speakers to attack the incumbent president.

And in this election year, the policies of George W Bush are a target.

Vietnam throwback

Politically divisive commencement speeches were common during the Vietnam War but are now "extraordinarily uncommon," said Dr Herman Berliner, a provost at Long Island New York's Hofstra University.

Novelist EL Doctorow
Doctorow was booed into silence for criticising Bush
Dr Berliner, who has attended many graduation ceremonies over the last 30 years, says commencement speeches should unite, not divide.

But that is not the way it is going this year.

For some, like Dr Berliner, this is a misuse of a benign forum meant to inspire the next generation.

For others, it is a welcome throwback to the 1960s when radicalism on campus changed the political agenda.

Meanwhile, President Bush has been doing some commencement day politicking of his own at strategically picked colleges across the United States.

His latest speech - televised live to hundreds of Air Force Academy graduates in Colorado Springs - was billed by the White House as a major presidential address on foreign policy.

"Just as events in Europe determined the outcome of the Cold War, events in the Middle East will set the course of our current struggle," Bush told an audience of 29,000 people.


The subject of Iraq was also topic for the novelist EL Doctorow last week during a commencement day speech of his own.

George W Bush speaks at the US Air Force Academy commencement
Bush delivered a foreign policy speech at the USAF graduation ceremony
The world-class author of Ragtime and City of God was loudly booed for criticizing the president during a speech at Hofstra University, whose student body is mostly working class.

He drew attention to what he called Bush's "untrue" stories about the war in Iraq.

"One story he told was that the country of Iraq had nuclear and biological and chemical weapons destruction and was intending shortly to use them in us... That was an exciting story, all right.

"It was designed to send shivers up our spines. But it was not true," the 73-year-old novelist said.

His comments led to a torrent of boos and catcalls that forced the author to silence.

The outrage was so strong that the Hofstra president had to step in to ask the crowd to for quiet.

Angry students and parents complained that his speech was inappropriate and failed to celebrate the graduates and their accomplishments.

"To ruin my daughter's graduation with politics is pathetic," said Bill Schmidt, a retired New York police captain.

"I think the president is doing the best he can."


But that sentiment didn't affect financier George Soros during a commencement speech at the elite Ivy League Columbia University in New York City.

He was cheered on by students for his attack on President Bush.

Your generation must repair this damage, and it will not be easy
Ken Burns,
Likewise, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns denounced the war in Iraq during an address to graduates at Yale, another of the country's most prestigious universities.

Generations of the Bush family have attended Yale and this year, the current president's daughter Barbara was among its graduates - but she skipped the commencement speech.

Meanwhile, secret service helicopters circled overhead as Mr Burns made his comments.

"Steel yourselves. Your generation must repair this damage, and it will not be easy," said Burns.

"Somehow, recently, though, we have replaced our usual and healthy doubt with an arrogance and belligerence that resembles more the ancient and now fallen empires of our history books than a modern compassionate democracy."

His comments received applause from the 1,300 graduates and their families and friends.

Changing attitudes

Yale graduate Joshua Foer observed that for his generation attitudes towards the government are changing.

In an article in the New York Times he wrote, "The class of 2004 grew up at a time when it was easy to have faith in the goodness of our government. Vietnam, Watergate and even Iran-contra were not part of our direct political memory."

But, Foer argued, lately things have changed. "As conditions in Iraq have grown more chaotic, many of us who supported the war are evaluating our positions."

This is the time for bold measures and this is the country and you are the generation
He cites a poll released last month by the Harvard University Institute of Politics.

It suggests that the percentage of students who describe themselves as liberal has increased significantly over the last year - from 36% to 44%.

Given the partisan nature of this year's presidential campaign, it is perhaps not surprising that an older generation is trying to motivate a younger one into political action.

In an impassioned commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania, even Bono urged the graduating class to action though stopped short of criticising the president.

"This is the time for bold measures and this is the country and you are the generation," the rock star said, clad in academic robes.

Meanwhile, Jon Stewart, one of America's leading political satirists made some sardonic remarks about the state of the world, a not-so-veiled attack on the Bush administration.

"We declared war on terror. We declared war on terror - it's not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I'm sure we'll take on that bastard ennui."

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