Like a play within a play, E.L. Doctorow sat in the lobby bar of the Watergate Hotel yesterday reading a newspaper story about himself. He wasn't in the news for "Sweet Land Stories," his just-published, widely praised collection of tales, but for the controversial things he said in his commencement address at Hofstra University over the weekend.
The world-class author of "Ragtime" and "City of God" was in Washington for a PEN/Faulkner event. Wearing a green jacket, off-white shirt, dark tie and khakis, Doctorow, 73, adjusted his wire-rims and scanned a Newsday article about the incident at the Long Island college. The newspaper reported that Doctorow had rankled some of the students and parents by speaking out against President Bush, saying that Bush is guilty of telling bad, untrue stories. And that at one point Doctorow was forced to silence at the lectern because of intense "booing that came mainly from the crowd in the stands."
The Newsday account "left out the best part," the thin-haired, thin-voiced Doctorow said. "I was saying a very traditional thing to graduates." He said he told the 1,300 students that they no longer had to focus on grades and courses and degrees. But now as college graduates they will "find themselves living not only in a house and a neighborhood, but in history."
He recalled, "I told them it was incumbent on citizens to be actively engaged in that history."
And "simply because something was said by authority did not mean it shouldn't be questioned. I think it was entirely appropriate."
Apparently, some folks at the university ceremony liked what Doctorow had to say and cheered. But others said his comments were inappropriately political. The vocal outrage grew so vociferous that at one point Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz stepped in and asked the crowd to quiet down so Doctorow could continue.
Of the response he received at the university, Doctorow said, "I thought we were all supposed to speak out? Isn't that what this country is about?"
He drew a distinction between good stories and bad stories. One story Bush told, Doctorow said to the graduating class, "was that the country of Iraq had nuclear and biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction and was intending shortly to use them on us. . . . That was an exciting story all right. It was designed to send shivers up our spines. But it was not true."
And he said, "Another story was that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was in league with terrorists of al Qaeda . . . and that turned out to be not true. But anyway we went off to war on the basis of these stories."
He told the students, "Sadly they are not good stories the president tells."
Over a cup of coffee with skim milk, Doctorow wanted to talk about his own stories. One story in the new collection, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," is about arrogance of power in the White House.
The daughter of a Texas tycoon who supports the country's unnamed president tries to bring attention to bad policies by staging a mock crime at the White House. In one eloquent soliloquy, the daughter speaks out against those who run the country. "Oh Lord . . . they always win, don't they. They are very skillful. It didn't come out quite as we planned -- we are such amateurs -- but even if it had, I suppose they would have known how to handle it. I just thought maybe this could restore them, put them back among us. It would be a kind of shock treatment if they felt the connection, for even just a moment, that this had something to do with them, the gentlemen who run things."
"If it is a good story," Doctorow said, "it will work 15 or 20 years from now no matter who is in the White House."
Men don't fare too well in this new collection. Women triumph. In some of the stories, women are the main characters; in others they are the catalysts for action. "You do fall in love with your characters," he said. "You think of them as real people."
A National Book Award winner, Doctorow does not shy away from his role as a public figure. "Everything is public," he said. "Everything we do has some effect on those around us. And the more powerful the person, the greater the effect."
He reveres the 19th-century European existentialists who were writers and social activists. "They peddled broadsheets in the streets of Paris."
He has been working on a new novel, but has stopped on occasion to write a shorter story.
During a guest spot on Diane Rehm's radio show yesterday, Doctorow received a call from one of the parents at the commencement. A man named Ron from Dix Hills, N.Y., said he thought Doctorow showed "poor taste" by criticizing the president during the graduation address. The caller said the speech was "one-sided with a captive audience."
Doctorow didn't flinch. He said matter-of-factly that he was just trying to connect the idea of joy and celebration with "the idea of responsible citizenship."