My niece Rachael was graduated from Wesleyan this past Sunday, an accomplishment perhaps overshadowed for some by the highly publicized circumstances surrounding the commencement ceremony. Until a couple of weeks before, the only political stir on campus had been a May 16 “riot” involving a hundred or so students chanting “Hell no, we won’t go!” when the campus police broke up their post-exam partying.
That, and a campaign to boycott buying the $50 graduation caps and robes in lieu of contributing to some other worthwhile cause. This changed on May 23 when the scheduled commencement speaker, Senator Edward Kennedy, had to cancel because of his health problems. The substitute: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Pretty exciting, but also the source of some anxiety for those planning to attend. After all, Obama’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, had just brought up an awful fear in the back of everyone’s mind when she made her churlish reference to Robert Kennedy and 1968. Would the event be blanketed with Secret Service, hovering helicopters, and metal detectors, turning a celebratory occasion into an exercise for Homeland Security? Would there be demonstrators? No doubt the media would swarm on the campus, elbowing out the families and friends of those graduating. My sister Teri, Rachael’s mother, was dismayed to read on the school’s Web site that “parking availability might be limited.”
“Four years of paying tuition,” she grumbled, “and the parking is limited?”
She needn’t have worried. Traffic was light, the weather was beautiful, and parking was a breeze. Security outside consisted of smiling and helpful Wesleyan undergraduates in red “event staff” T-shirts and courteous Wesleyan Public Safety officers. As for demonstrators, I bumped into three standing on the periphery of the event. “This is as close as we could get,” said the Hillary Clinton supporter. One of his signs listed the “National Barack Channel’s (NBC) superdelegates for Obama,” which included Tim Russert and Keith Olbermann. The McCain demonstrator’s sign read “Barack ‘Hussein’ Obama? You’ve got to be kidding!” The third, a young man in a suit wearing a Huckabee pin, had no signs and claimed to be a “neutral observer.”
Inside the quadrangle, it seemed like any other day on campus, albeit one with 10,000 people waiting in the hot sun while being relentlessly serenaded by the college’s Japanese taiko drum ensemble — and nine cammie-clad men with sniper rifles lining the rooftops around the speaker’s dais. They gazed intently at the crowd through binoculars; some in the crowd gazed intently through binoculars back at them.
As for the media, they occupied a modest platform off to the side, and there was not nearly as many as were waiting outside MGH during Kennedy’s stay there.
Senator Obama was announced, was greeted with warm if not ecstatic applause, and delivered his address. It wasn’t his most rousing. No new ground was broken, and he touched on no controversial topics. Who’s going to object to such remarks as “there is nothing naive about the impulse to save the world — that’s your task, Class of 2008”? Certainly not this happy group, some of whom had already volunteered for the Peace Corps. Obama congratulated and shook the hands of all 737 graduates, including that of my niece, Rachael. “His handshake was firm and dry,” she reported. “And he smelled like an angel.”