Hofstra graduation speaker is booed

Crowd of parents, relatives say ceremony was the wrong place for E.L. Doctorow to criticize the president.

By Bart Jones
Staff Writer

May 24, 2004

E.L. Doctorow, one of the most celebrated writers in America, was nearly booed off the stage at Hofstra University yesterday when he gave a commencement address lambasting President George W. Bush and effectively calling him a liar.

Booing that came mainly from the crowd in the stands became so intense that Doctorow stopped speaking at one point, showing no emotion as he stood silently and listened to the jeers. Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz intervened, and called on the audience to allow him to finish. He did, although some booing persisted.

Doctorow, who spent virtually all of his 20-minute address in Hempstead criticizing Bush, told the crowd that like himself the president is a storyteller. But "sadly they are not good stories this president tells," he said. "They are not good stories because they are not true." That line provoked the first boos, along with scattered cheers.

"One story he told 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," he said. "That was an exciting story all right, it was designed to send shivers up our spines. But it was not true.

"Another story was that the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was in league with the terrorists of al-Qaida," he said. "And that turned out to be not true. But anyway we went off to war on the basis of these stories."

Those lines provoked an outburst of boos so loud the "Ragtime" author stopped the speech. Rabinowitz approached the podium and called for calm. "We value open discussion and debate," he said. "For the sake of your graduates, please let him finish."

Some students and most of the faculty responded with a standing ovation, and Doctorow resumed speaking. He attacked Bush for giving the rich tax breaks, doing "a very poor job of combating terrorism" and allowing the government to subpoena libraries "to see what books you've been taking out."

Many parents and relatives of the more than 1,300 undergraduates were livid over the address, saying afterward that a college graduation was not the place for a political speech. "If this would have happened in Florida, we would have taken him out" of the stadium, said Frank Mallafre, who traveled from Miami for his granddaughter's graduation.

Bill Schmidt, 51, of North Bellmore, shared the outrage. "To ruin my daughter's graduation with politics is pathetic," the retired New York Police Department captain said. "I think the president is doing the best he can" in the war against terrorism.

Many students also called Doctorow's speech inappropriate. Peter Hulse, 24, of Manchester, England, said, "He's a bit like Michael Moore," the documentary director who provoked booing at last year's Oscars' ceremony by criticizing the war in Iraq.

But some defended Doctorow's speech. "I think he's entitled to his opinion and he's as American as anyone else," said a Hempstead resident who identified himself only as Frank and whose daughter was graduating.

One Hofstra official said yesterday that while Doctorow had the right to say what he did, he violated the unwritten code that college commencement speeches should inspire and unite a student body. Provost Dr. Herman Berliner said he has been to numerous graduation ceremonies during the past 30 years and "I cannot remember a commencement speech that was as divisive as this commencement speech was." The university did not know the content of the address. It is not Hofstra's policy to screen commencement speeches, officials said.

Berliner said it was relatively common during the Vietnam War, but "extraordinarily uncommon" in recent times for a speaker to have to stop speaking.

Still, it has happened recently. Last year, New York Times reporter Chris Hedges was booed off the stage when he tried to deliver an antiwar speech at Rockford College in Illinois.

Some Hofstra professors said Doctorow was on target in discussing the war. "I thought this was a totally appropriate place to talk about politics because that's the world our students are entering," said sociology professor Cynthia Bogard. "I only wish their parents had provided them a better role model."

In Doctorow's own words

"And then followed the story that in just a few weeks the invasion of Iraq was a mission accomplished. That was the title of the story the president told, 'Mission Accomplished.' And that, terribly, tragically, is not a true story. It is so untrue that nobody is allowed to photograph the return of our fallen soldiers and Marines and national guardsmen and women as they arrive every week to the United States in their coffins. The president doesn't want us to know how untrue that story is. But of course we know."

"Our government is legally empowered now to arrest and imprison people indefinitely without bringing charges against them or giving them a trial. It may conduct secret searches and surveillances of homes and offices of people who for any reason come under its suspicion. It may subpoena the public library or your university library and demand to see what books you've been taking out. And so with all the consequences of this president's bad stories we have to ask ourselves what is happening to us? What are we becoming?"

"In fact this president has done a very poor job of combating terrorism, as everyone who has studied the matter will tell you. He has been too busy invading Iraq to find Osama bin Laden, or provide the security for our nuclear plants, our ports and chemical factories and industrial plants, and from all objective accounts we are in as much danger from terrorists as we were on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001."

"... it creates other bad storytellers in the president's style, from his cabinet members who decide to ignore the Geneva Convention and sanction the subjection of prisoners to unlawful interrogation right down the line to the level of American soldiers in Iraq who in the very same prison Saddam Hussein tortured prisoners, have tortured and humiliated prisoners, stuffed their heads in toilets to make them renounce their religion and posed them naked with dog collars around their necks. And so here is another presidential story - that we are bringing democracy to the Iraqi people - so bad as to smell bad."

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.