Hillary at Yale?

Posted: Apr 01, 2001 12:00 AM
A protest movement is fomenting at Yale University, protesting the selection of Sen. Hillary Clinton as commencement speaker. The idea of the band of conservative students is not to disrupt the commencement proceedings, but to boycott at least that part of it in which she will figure.

I am not privy to the proposed arrangements. Presumably the conservative protesters could linger at the gates of the old campus until Sen. Clinton was through speaking. Or, much more disruptively, they could walk away from their seats on the campus when she was introduced, and return after she was done speaking. More destructively still, they could do what the students at Brown did when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was the speaker, rising from their seats and turning their backs on him until he was done.

Protests, in the Vietnam years, achieved a pretty high din. At Yale in 1970, the entire commencement proceeding was canceled. That decision, made by President Kingman Brewster, sometime law professor, reacted to what I have called the skyjacker's leverage. The person who wishes to take control of an airplane with 400 people in it finds it relatively easy to do, since flying 500 miles per hour 35,000 feet above the ground puts the odds for successful disruption in a single pair of hands. On a college campus, a half-dozen students, if that is their design, can disrupt proceedings.

I am a longtime beneficiary of good manners and indulgence by student bodies, having delivered more than 30 commencement addresses. At almost all, the students were good-natured about having to listen to a conservative, as their terminal academic ordeal. The one exception was, to say the least, colorful. At the University of California at Riverside, seated on the dais before speaking, I looked down on a cardboard box brought up and dropped on my lap by a dissenting student. The wiggling betrayed a live presence; from the box, offloaded from my lap, a small pig emerged and scampered over to the university president. He was engaged in reading a Rhodes Scholarship award to a proud young graduate, who needed now quickly to maneuver his legs, since the pig was seeking a pissoir.

My own analysis in the Yale situation is that the invitation to Mrs. Clinton is not a casus belli. Her formal credentials are resplendently there: the degree from the law school, her distinguished career in the school, and all that followed capped by her unambiguous election as U.S. senator. Now her formal qualifications hardly tell the whole story of her selection as commencement speaker. Sen. Barry Goldwater was never asked to give a commencement speech.

On the other hand, there are the anomalies. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was asked to speak at Harvard. That invitation was resented by some undergraduates ("Solzhenitsyn, Warmonger!"), but not boycotted. Students need to draw a line among speakers who oughtn't to have been invited, and speakers to whom an invitation to highlight a ceremonial event is outrageous, demanding full-frontal protest, and others who are simply wrongheaded.

A few years ago Dartmouth College, unaccountably, invited Angela Davis to commemorate the anniversary of coeducation. Ms. Davis had run for vice president of the United States on the Communist Party ticket, and should be invited to speak only to Menshevik groups who want to continue the discussion interrupted in 1917.

Shortly after leaving Yale, I opposed a planned invitation to the head of the U.S. Communist Party, Gus Hall, and won the most exhilarating political victory of my life when the Yale Political Union, following the speeches and discussion, voted to rescind the invitation to him. That was worth high moral and intellectual exertion, but Mrs. Clinton isn't in that category, for all that she has managed to embody the most offensive characteristics of her husband's administration, supreme among them her overdoing her commitment to stay with him in sickness and in health. The health of the nation should have interposed, somewhere, in her balance of loyalties.

So my vote would be to go with it, tolerate her appearance and be civil to the guest of one's alma mater.