The Rove Commencement Speech Controversy: The Students' View
Mon January 28, 2008 7:58 am

Earlier this month, Evan Smith posted an item on his blog, State of Mine, noting that Wayne Slater had blogged about a controversy at the Choate prep school in Wallingford, Connecticut, resulting from an invitation to Karl Rove to be the commencement speaker in June. Here are more details from the student newspaper, first in a news story, then in an editorial.

In an email to the Choate community, on Tuesday, January 15, Headmaster Ed Shanahan announced that Karl Rove will replace Senator John Warner as the commencement speaker on June 8th, 2008.

Mr. Rove served as the former Deputy White House Chief of Staff under George W. Bush's administration, and was a key player in Bush's election as president. Before Rove worked for the current Bush administration, he spent much of his career as a political advisor for primarily Republican candidates, such as Senator John Ashcroft.

Mr. Rove will join a long list of Commencement speakers that have included journalists such as Peter Jennings, politicians from both parties such as Dick Cheney (when he was Secretary of Defense) and Senator Chris Dodd. "We select speakers from all walks of life, with different points of view. That is what we should be doing as an educational institution. We should be putting in front of students and faculty a wide spectrum of ideas," commented Headmaster Shanahan, "We have commencement speakers from outside of the school community so that someone comes in with a message for graduating students about the world that they are about to engage in. Karl Rove is somebody who has dedicated a significant portion of his life to service, and has been an extremely influential person."

Despite this, the decision to invite Rove to be the graduation speaker has been met with much controversy on the Choate campus and among alumni and students. Karl Rove is widely believed to have been instrumental in the current administration's decision to go to war with Iraq. He chaired the White House Iraq Group, which, according to CNN and Newsweek, was created with the objective of publicizing the threat posed to the U.S. by Saddam Hussein prior to the Iraq War.

Additionally, Mr. Rove has been accused of leaking the identity of undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plume, in retaliation for her husband's op-ed piece in The New York Times that criticized the evidence that the Bush Administration cited as justification for the War in Iraq. Rove has also been accused of corruption and conflicts of interest in cases where he helped shape administration policies on energy while holding stock in energy companies such as Enron.

Although Rove was never formally indicted on any charge, there is widespread anger towards the school administration's decision to invite Karl Rove to speak on campus. "Beyond the fact that his being a widely believed Federal criminal stands against most of the principles that we claim have on campus, it is more than disappointing that the decision was made with so little consultation of other members of the Choate community and that Mr. Shanahan chose to invite such a divisive figure to say the least," observed an angry Alessio Manti '08, a member of the graduating class.

However, to truly understand the controversy surrounding Karl Rove, one must venture into the most frequented forum of student activity: Facebook. Two groups, "Choate Doesn’t Want Karl Rove," and "Choate Students for Karl Rove," have sprung up and include Choate community members, past and present. "Choate Doesn't Want Karl Rove" claims as its description "we do not doubt that he is an interesting person, and an excellent politician, but he has no place at Choate. He is an American traitor, leaking the name of a CIA agent, discrediting many veterans, calling people unpatriotic, etc."

Some people do not oppose Rove as a graduation speaker because they completely disagree with his policies, but rather feel that the speaker should not be an alienating person. "I think that they should invite a writer or an artist, someone who has seen the world, but is not as controversial" stated Spanish teacher Marta Escartin–Arias.

After already a controversial year of selections for the role, the choice of Karl Rove, simply augments speculation about proposed speaker. An anonymous student remarked "What will [Dr.] Shanahan do if Rove gets indicted? Will he still be the 'key figure in shaping history' that the headmaster wants for the role?" Certainly, only the future holds the answers of these pressing questions.

This is the editorial:

Headmaster Edward J. Shanahan shook the Choate community last week with his announcement that Karl Rove would be the Commencement speaker for the class of 2008. Rove served as senior adviser and Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush until he resigned in late August of 2007.

Rove is often heralded as one of the best, if not the best, political strategists of his time. He oversaw both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns and was integral in ensuring his victories in 2000 and 2004. In an email sent to the student body last week, Headmaster Shanahan remarked that Rove "played a vital role in the major policy decisions made during the Bush Presidency."

The News deeply objects to the appointment of Mr. Rove to speak this June. At Commencement two years ago on June 4, 2006, Headmaster Shanahan asked graduating seniors to think of their responsibilities to themselves, and to others. He lamented how "responsibility to others and for oneself has been all but forgotten in certain circles." Mr. Shanahan alluded to various public figures who have been exposed for scandalous activities, noting that in spite of their lack of ethics and sense of responsibility they were all found to be "not guilty." At that Commencement Mr. Shanahan posed a very important and pressing question: "How can so many moral, ethical and legal laws be broken and still no one is guilty, no one assumes public responsibility for having chosen to do wrong?"

It is ironic that the man who issued those words two years ago has chosen a commencement speaker who has gained infamy in many circles for less-than-ethical decisions and actions. Thus far, Mr. Rove has not been indicted for any major crimes. But, many would argue that he is as culpable for the compromised situation the country finds itself in as any other figure of the Bush administration.

In their book, "The Architect: Karl Rove and the Master Plan for Absolute Power," James Moore and Wayne Slater assert that "under Rove, the politics of deception has become a conventional political tool." It is known that Rove presided over meetings of the White House Iraq Group, a secretive White House group established to sell Congress and the public the merits of invading Iraq. Congress agreed to go to war largely because of the supposed threat of nuclear weapons and alleged connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Not many in Congress were swayed by the latter argument, though certainly the administration convinced the American public of its veracity. No weapons were found. No connection ever existed. Today, the Department of Defense has confirmed 3920 deaths of U.S. soldiers (according to icasualties.org). The number of dead Iraqi civilians, while not official, greatly outweighs the number of Americans killed. Most importantly, as a result of this ideologically-driven war, the United States now must spend years regaining the sympathy that foreign nations had for this country on the heels of 9/11.

Helping to send the U.S. to war in Iraq is not the only thing Mr. Rove is infamous for. For example, he has acknowledged being a source for an article that disclosed the identity of former C.I.A. officer Valerie Plame (although he did not use her name in conversation). However, the point of this article is not to recount a long list of unethical decisions. Mr. Rove would be a very interesting speaker, and having him give a Special Program address could make sense. However, he is unfit to deliver our graduation address. The point of the graduation ceremonies is to celebrate the seniors and the unforgettable time they have spent at Choate and to bring the community together around the climactic moment on the school calendar. Instead, we will be deeply divided. A graduation speaker should inspire us. More importantly, he should represent the values of the school and serve as a role model for the graduates as they enter the adult world. Rove does neither of those two things.

What kind of message does hosting Mr. Rove send to the student body? Do we wish to condone his behavior? It would seem that students are being told that the ends justify the means. The News urges Mr. Shanahan to reconsider his decision. While it is gracious of Mr. Rove to offer his services as Commencement speaker, The News asks that the school kindly reject the offer.

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