As President George W. Bush ’68 walked from the podium after receiving an honorary degree and speaking at Yale’s tercentennial graduation, David Stewart ’73 and Nancy Floreen complimented and criticized him at the same time.
Floreen said she found him unabashed. Stewart thought he was genuine. But neither put down the yellow protest signs they carried, which called for changes in Bush’s environmental policy.
The pair, parents of a graduating senior in Yale College, were among a crowd of thousands of students, parents, friends and well-wishers that seemed simultaneously to applaud and boo the homecoming president in his first public appearance at his alma mater. Bush, for his part, met his largely hostile crowd face on with self-deprecating remarks and a playful tone that endeared some audience members and offended others.
There was no shortage of protest at Yale’s Commencement, which was held under partly sunny skies on the University’s Old Campus. Student organizers in Yale College as well as in the graduate schools had distributed yellow protest signs bearing messages such as “Workers’ Rights are Human Rights Make Yale Proud” and “Protect Gay Rights. Make Yale Proud” that waved over the sea of spectators and chairs during the morning’s ceremony.
Standing in the hour-long lines to enter Old Campus through metal detectors, relatives of graduates said they were not at Yale to see Bush and did not think many people were.
“A lot of people are really upset about the policies he is putting forward,” said Mary Boyle, who was waiting with her two young children to see her stepson graduate. In the background a group marched, yelling loudly, “Energy plan, not energy scam.”
“He doesn’t seem very popular here,” Boyle continued. “I don’t know why he’s here at all. He’s obviously not very welcomed.”
But even if Bush didn’t seem welcome, most people in attendance said they were glad he was coming.
“Not a lot of students can say they had a president at their graduation,” said John Petroff, watching for his child in the entering procession.
Spectator Jennifer Daniels, watching as University Chaplain Frederick Streets prepared to begin the ceremony, said audience members were certainly welcoming the opportunity to protest Bush, even if they were not welcoming him.
“You have to take every opportunity to voice your opinion,” Daniels said. “That’s what Yale’s about.”
Daniels’ husband was graduating from the Forestry School, one of the most active groups of student protestors. The students wore caps decorated with power plants, in opposition, they said, to Bush’s energy plan, which calls for increased domestic production and a revival of nuclear power.
During Bush’s speech, there were only a few moments of applause that prompted audience members to raise their signs. During most of the president’s speech, the spectators, who filled nearly all of Old Campus, chuckled or applauded Bush’s comments. He complimented Yale professors and the Class of 2001, for example, drawing rounds of applause. He talked about his lackluster performance at Yale, drawing amused laughs.
“He read the crowd well,” Luke Smith SOM ’01 said.
Still others felt insulted by Bush’s repeated statement that he was an average student who did just fine.
“He mocked his own education here. A lot of us take this place very seriously,” Jennifer Grimm FOR ’01 said.
Soon after Bush’s speech, Old Campus was empty. Some of the professors who had boycotted the president’s speech returned to the quadrangle and spoke with the few lingerers.
History professor Max Page, who attended a union rally across from Old Campus during the ceremony, said he had overheard the speech and was glad he had not come. He added that he was pleased by the large number of students who held up protest signs. Nearly all of the undergraduate section participated during the president’s 12-minute speech.
Those minutes came and went quickly, audience members said.
“It was a treat for all of us,” Floreen said, folding her protest sign below her arm. “But the main event is our child’s graduation.”
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