Kerry Praises Reagan in Speech at High School Graduation
Senator Puts Campaign on Hold to Honor Former President
By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A02
TOLEDO, June 6 -- Sen. John F. Kerry suspended his campaign schedule for this week in deference to Ronald Reagan's death, and he praised the former Republican president to a high school graduating class here Sunday as a leader who knew "the difference between strong beliefs and bitter partisanship."
The presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee also postponed the two high-dollar Victory 2004 fundraising concerts scheduled for this week in Los Angeles and New York featuring Kerry and to be headlined by such celebrities as Barbra Streisand, Billy Crystal, Neil Diamond and Robin Williams. The events will be rescheduled, the campaign said.
On Sunday, Kerry -- who planned to refocus his message on the economy this week after three major speeches about national security -- let Reagan have the day.
"Ronald Reagan and many of us disagreed on one issue or another, but he always disagreed with a smile, without partisanship," the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters after attending morning Mass at St. Anthony's in Boston. "I think he had a sense of idealism and a sense of optimism of the possibilities about our country that define leadership."
Later, during his commencement address at the University of Toledo to Bedford High School's 400 graduates, Kerry segued from his prepared remarks commemorating D-Day to memorialize Reagan as a "modern giant."
"Yesterday we lost one of our great optimists. . . . He was the voice of America in good times and in grief," he told students, parents and teachers. "He spoke for our country, for the eternal cause of liberty. . . . Free men and women everywhere will forever remember and honor President Reagan's role in ending the Cold War. . . . He was our oldest president, but he made America young again."
Kerry's unusual decision to deliver a high school commencement address was not without controversy. Bedford High is in Temperance, Mich., and attended by students in two of the nation's presidential battleground states -- Ohio and Michigan.
Kerry was invited to speak in March by senior Brandon Spader, editor of the school newspaper. When Kerry accepted the invitation, weeks of hand-wringing and quibbling consumed this small school community, resulting in a special school board meeting.
Critics accused Kerry of using the graduation ceremony for partisan purposes. One school board member, Steve Lennex -- whose daughter was in the graduating class -- opposed Kerry's visit and then withdrew from his board race after the special meeting.
"How many big-time political candidates speak at a high school graduation?" Lennex, a Republican, asked in the Detroit Free Press. "He figured out that this is a Michigan school in an Ohio venue and these are two swing states. My question still is: What are we going to do when the opposite side demands equal time?"
In his letter to Kerry, Spader told the candidate that the community -- which has fallen on hard economic times -- seems to have been forgotten in the presidential race. "I notice people walking around almost in a state of demoralization. . . . I would like to invite you to visit my community to voice your ideas to the common man and sit down for an interview," wrote Spader, who will attend the Air Force Academy.
In the end, Principal Dennis Caldwell assured the community that Kerry's appearance would not be a political rally but a valuable civics lesson. Kerry stuck with the plan, focusing his remarks on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the largest military operation in history, which helped save Europe from the Germans and end World War II.
"Sixty years ago today, an earlier generation faced down darkness and lit their way with a courage they found in their hearts to save freedom in the world," Kerry said. "On June 6th, 1944, more than 73,000 young men were on landing crafts steaming toward the Normandy shore. Many were not a day older than any of you sitting here today graduating. They left their homes, their families, their friends and, yes, their high schools to wage and win the decisive battle.
"That is what Americans do," he said. "It's you, all of you. It's your commitments to a cause bigger than yourselves. . . . You're the ones that will lift up this land with your ideas and with values with your faith, and your love of family and country. You are ones who will always stand up for what is just and what is right in America. That is what has always made the difference."
Kerry's campaign week was to include trips to Colorado, California, Arizona and New York. But now he will instead make just one overnight trip to Los Angeles on Tuesday for his daughter Alexandra's graduation from the American Film Institute. He will spend most of his time privately in Washington, where Reagan's body will be flown Wednesday to lie in state at the Capitol, and will attend a Friday memorial service.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company