Doctorow’s Malpractice

Did you hear about the college commencement speaker who was almost booed off the stage Sunday because his commencement address was an anti-Bush rant? The speaker was E.L. Doctorow. The college, God bless it forever, was Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island.

Newsday reported that Mr. Doctorow—or, as Newsday put it in the first paragraph, “E.L. Doctorow, one of the most celebrated writers in America”—gave a 20-minute address “lambasting President George W. Bush and effectively calling him a liar.” It didn’t go over too well. Mr. Doctorow announced to the crowd that he himself is a storyteller. But the president too, he said in a flight of dazzling cleverness, is a storyteller. The president’s stories are not so good thought “because they are not true.”

This is where the booing began.

“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,” Mr. Doctorow continued. “That was an exciting story all right, it was designed to send shivers up our spines. But it was not true.” Mr. Bush told stories about Saddam Hussein, that he “was in league with the terrorists of al Qaeda. And that turned out to be not true. But anyway we went off to war on the basis of these stories.”

This is where the crowd began to boo most lustily. Mr. Doctorow stopped his speech. There is the suggestion he was surprised. (By the way if he were a conservative, Newsday would have described him as “conservative writer Ed Doctorow, who had a bestseller in ‘Ragtime’ in 1974,” not “one of the most celebrated writers in America.”)

The president of the university called for calm. “We value open discussion and debate,” he said. “For the sake of your graduates, please let him finish.” The response to this was telling. Most of the faculty—the faculty, not the students—responded with a standing ovation. Mr. Doctorow finished his speech, attacking Mr. Bush on taxes and terrorism, and accusing him of wanting to subpoena libraries “to see what books you’ve been taking out.”

Newsday said many parents and relatives of the more than 1,300 undergraduates were “livid” over the address. Frank Mallafre, who had traveled from Miami for his granddaughter’s graduation, said, “If this would have happened in Florida, we would have taken him out” of the stadium. Bill Schmidt, 51, of North Bellmore, N.Y., shared the outrage. “To ruin my daughter’s graduation with politics is pathetic,” the retired New York police captain told the paper.

On Sunday night a Hofstra official said that while Mr. Doctorow had the right to his views, he violated the unwritten code that college commencement speeches should inspire and unite a student body. But a Hofstra faculty member came to the fore, defending Mr. Doctorow. “I thought this was a totally appropriate place to talk about politics because that’s the world our students are entering,” sociology professor Cynthia Bogard told Newsday. “I only wish their parents had provided them a better role model.”

Wow. Think of what a role model Prof. Bogard is. What a fool. What a snob.

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I want to explain to Ed Doctorow why he was booed. It was not, as he no doubt creamily recounted in a storytelling session over drinks that night in Sag Harbor, that those barbarians in Long Island’s lesser ZIP codes don’t want to hear the truth. It is not that they oppose free speech. It is not that the poor boobs of Long Island have an unaccountable affection for George W. Bush.
It is that they have class.

The poor stupid people of Long Island are courteous, and have respect for the views and feelings of others, and would not dream of imposing their particular views on a captive audience that has gathered to celebrate—to be happy about, to officially mark with their presence—the rather remarkable fact that one of their family studied and worked for four years, completed his courses, met all demands, and became a graduate of an American university.

This indeed is something to be proud of.

Did Eddy Doctorow know that? Did he care? I don’t think so. Did he understand that what the students needed from him—after all, he has lasted a long time, has been a member of a profession, has won the favor of the elite media for lo these many years, and manages to produce many books nobody reads in the computer age while still using a quill—was perhaps a sense of . . .

All right, I give up. I don’t know what they needed from him. America hasn’t been the same since the dream of socialism so rudely ended? What will we do for a sense of communitarian ideals now that Marx is gone? “God may not exist but we need to tell stories about him nonetheless?”

Fast Eddy Doctorow told a story at the commencement all right, and it is a story about the boorishness of the aging liberal. An old ’60s radical who feels he is entitled to impose his views on this audience on this day because he’s so gifted, so smart, so insightful, so very above the normal rules, agreements and traditions. And for this he will get to call himself besieged and heroic—a hero about whom stories are told!—when in fact all he did was guarantee positive personal press in the elite media, at the cost of the long suffering patience of normal people who wanted to move the tassel and throw the hat in the air.

I am a conservative. I have spoken at three college commencements. Each time I spoke I talked about the students, and the life ahead of them, and the nature of their achievement. I spoke to them about them. I didn’t tell them Jimmy Carter is a retard or Bill Clinton is a pig. It would have been wrong to do that. It would have been boorish. It would have deserved boos.

I’m glad that’s what Eddy Doctorow got this Sunday from what appear to be his intellectual and moral superiors on Long Island. Go Hofstra.