The Curious Case of the Poor, Beleaguered Former Secretary of State

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Condoleezza Rice, who served as Pres. George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, recently turned down an invitation to deliver the commencement address at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to the dismay of many would-be First Amendment scholars and free-speech purists. Her reason? The wide-spread student protests that greeted the University’s announcement that she would speak.

CNN explains:

Condoleezza Rice, former US secretary of state announced on Facebook Saturday that she would not be speaking at the Rutgers University commencement this year, following student protests against her appearance.

The students made accusations against her in connection with the war in Iraq.

“Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families,” Rice wrote.

“Rutgers’ invitation to me to speak has become a distraction for the university community at this very special time.”

To no one’s surprise, Dr. Rice’s decision not to speak set off the predictable weeping and gnashing of teeth among those who believe the First Amendment requires every speaker to be able to speak whenever and wherever he or she chooses, and requires every person to listen to what any speaker has to say in every single circumstance. For example, on Wednesday the Daily Banter published a piece by self-professed “millennial” Olivia Nuzzi (oh, how I hate these pat descriptions of huge demographic groups – thanks, advertising industry!), who bemoaned the former Secretary of State’s fate:

Rice occupied one of the most important offices in the whole country. But you’re right, kids, she probably has nothing interesting to say or any good advice because she was involved in a senseless war.

Nice of you to acknowledge that bit about the “senseless war” that claimed the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women and an estimated 500,000 Iraqi civilians, Ms. Nuzzi. But I digress.

Yes, it is indeed possible that Dr. Rice might have some valuable “advice” – maybe even advice that doesn’t involve lying about a certain you-know-whose weapons of mass you-know-what. But the premise of Ms. Nuzzi’s piece is that the students at Rutgers (among other examples she cites) protested Dr. Rice’s appearance because they’re “afraid” of opposing ideas. “The entire point of college is to be exposed to different things,” she insists.

Now, I don’t profess to be as gifted as Ms. Nuzzi at reading the minds of thousands of complete strangers, but it occurs to me that she may be wrong about the motivation of those Rutgers students. Because it’s entirely possible that some or all of them object not to Dr. Rice’s words or her ideas, but to her actions. It’s not like Dr. Rice spent eight years sitting in a wingback leather chair smoking a pipe and musing abstractly about foreign affairs; she was directly involved in planning and selling an illegal war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. God forbid we should consider the morality of what our political leaders do, but that’s some pretty nasty business. Why, it’s the kind of thing that might get you shunned from polite society. If there is such a thing.

So, the question arises: Is it altogether unreasonable for students who spent tens of thousands of dollars to get to that graduation ceremony (or who went tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get there) to have some strong feelings about their University bestowing a major accolade on someone with that that kind of track record? And don’t kid yourselves; it is a major accolade to be invited to speak at a big time college graduation … and it’s one that comes with a hefty price tag:

Rice was scheduled to receive a $35,000 speaking fee and an honorary degree for her speech.

Oh. That’s nice. Dr. Rice was to get $35,000 and an honorary degree. But, yes, Ms. Nuzzi, it’s all about being afraid of opposing ideas, not about lavishing cash and prizes on a possible war criminal.

And here’s the glorious irony of it all, which, perhaps, Ms. Nuzzi, being a “millennial,” doesn’t fully appreciate. The rest of us were (ahem) exposed to Condoleezza Rice’s ideas for at least eight solid years while George W. Bush was in office. And not merely exposed to Dr. Rice’s ideas – we were exposed to them to the exclusion of dissenting voices. Yes, that’s right. When Dr. Rice was serving in Pres. Bush’s administration, she and her colleagues were indulged by the most solicitous media I’ve witnessed in my 52 years on the planet. She and her co-conspirators – er, colleagues – appeared regularly on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, and many of them still do, to the nodding adulation of the Fourth Estate’s talking heads. The New York Times published the Bush Administration’s misinformation about Iraq above the fold on a daily basis, thanks in no small part to a reporter who had an uncomfortably close relationship with Vice Pres. Cheney and his henchman, Scooter Libby, and barely acknowledged its woefully shoddy reporting even after the Administration’s case for war evaporated before our eyes.

And those who disagreed with Dr. Rice and her friends in the Administration? Those “opposing ideas”? Yeah, they were ignored, unreported, marginalized, ridiculed, silenced.

Because Americans really were afraid of those ideas.

So after years of having her ideas crammed down our throats, we’re supposed to care that students at Rutgers said, “Enough already with the ideas, Dr. Rice”?

But I could be wrong. Maybe in perfect world, everybody would listen to opposing ideas all the time, in every situation. Maybe every time the Jehovah’s Witnesses ring my doorbell, I should to invite them in for coffee and listen to what they have to say. Because I might learn something! I’m sure Ms. Nuzzi does that, right?

In a perfect world, though, people who opposed the horrifically bad ideas espoused by Condoleezza Rice, et al., for eight years or more would have had a voice, too. They would have had the opportunity to speak, and to be heard, to the same extent as Condoleezza Rice and her pals in the Bush White House. And if that had happened, the whole listening-to-opposing-viewpoints might be a hell of a lot more palatable today.

David von Ebers

Dave von Ebers is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (BA ’83, JD ’87), and has practiced business law and litigation in the Chicago metropolitan area for more than a quarter century. After practicing with some of Chicago’s most distinguished law firms, Mr. von Ebers opened his solo practice in Oak Park, Illinois, in 2001. Mr. von Ebers is an established writer and blogger, having written extensively on civil rights, constitutional law, politics, sports and music – and often the intersection of some or all of foregoing – since 2005. Mr. von Ebers joined the award-winning This Week in Blackness team in 2013, and is the co-host of Sportsball with Aaron Rand Freeman and Rachael Parenta.

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