Rice backing out of Rutger’s speech is a seasonal staple

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the California Republican Party 2014 Spring Convention in Burlingame, Calif. last month. ( AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)
Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at the California Republican Party 2014 Spring Convention in Burlingame, Calif., last month. (Ben Margot/AP)

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s announcement Saturday — declining to give the Rutgers commencement address so as not to “become a distraction for the university” — is hardly unusual.

In fact, her  move, which came after student protests over her role in the Iraq War, follows decades of speakers and participants either declining to get in the midst of controversies or finding themselves dealing with the issues while on stage.

Rice’s action  followed  first lady Michelle Obama’s decision last month to alter plans to speak to high schoolers in Topeka, Kan., after students and parents said they were concerned that her appearance would cut ticket availability.

In recent years, actors, former government officials and pundits have withdrawn or were canceled as speakers. Last year, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick withdrew from alma mater Swarthmore over his Iraq War role.

Even former first lady Barbara Bush got protests at Wellesley in 1990 for not being a career woman.

And even those who do not face protests beforehand can face opprobrium at the podium. We recall former student speaker — and more recently secretary of state — Hillary Clinton’s 1969 Wellesley commencement take-down of former Massachusetts senator Edward Brooke (R) after he criticized anti-war protesters in his speech.

Wonder if, as the 2016 campaign approaches, she might get hit by protests over her vote to authorize the Iraq War or over Benghazi.

One of the most dramatic commencement events came at Haverford College in 1986, when former Reagan transportation secretary Drew Lewis startled a commencement gathering by ripping off a ceremonial hood and rejecting an honorary degree at his alma mater over protests about his role during the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.

So don’t be surprised as the season kicks into gear to see more retreats, cancellations and controversies. It’s not 1968, but college kids can still revolt.

 

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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