Presidential visit polarizing tiny St. Vincent College in Pa.

Some delighted

others say Iraq policy at odds with Catholic school's values

May 11, 2007|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

LATROBE, Pa. -- If President Bush was hoping for an unabashedly friendly reception when he agreed to give the commencement speech at tiny St. Vincent College today, he picked the wrong spot.

Anti-war demonstrators have been organizing weekly vigils on the fringes of the Pennsylvania campus. They plan to be waiting for Bush this morning, their ranks thickened by notices posted on Craigslist and other Internet sites.

Many students are delighted that the president is coming, but others say his Iraq war policy is at odds with the peaceful values of this Roman Catholic liberal arts school, founded in 1846 by Benedictine monks.

"What I've learned here is every human life is valuable to the last second," said Thaddeus Pajak, 22, a graduating senior who plans to enroll in medical school. "If Iraqi civilians are dying in the numbers reported in the media, that doesn't go along with what I've learned here."

Graduation visits by Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials are galvanizing opponents at campuses across the country, sparking intense debates and frustrating White House hopes. A similar outcry greeted Bush last month at a South Florida community college. Protesters flocked to the campus even though it was considered to be an accommodating environment, with a large Cuban-American population.

About the same time, Cheney was spurring demonstrations at Brigham Young University in Utah, one of the most conservative places in the country.

"There is something about the upper levels of this administration that generates this kind of passionate dislike," said Chris W. Bonneau, a University of Pittsburgh political scientist. "It's not just us liberals on campus running these conservatives out. It's much more specifically focused."

The protests have been mild, compared with Vietnam-era campus scenes, when the military draft seemed to focus the minds of students.

St. Vincent, with a graduating class of fewer than 300, is headed by James Towey, a former Bush aide, who used to run the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. It lacks the prominence of some of the universities where Bush gave commencement speeches earlier in his presidency, such as Notre Dame, Yale and Ohio State.

"Where's that?" the president asked, when Towey told him he was leaving the administration to become president of a college about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh.

Towey said in an interview that "we're the luckiest college in the world" to get Bush as a graduation speaker. He added that he had no regrets about extending the invitation, despite campus divisions over the visit that ran so deep they led to a soul-searching public forum televised by C-SPAN.

With Bush's poll numbers near an all-time low in the midst of an unpopular war, the president seems to be having trouble finding sympathetic audiences - even in conservative-leaning places where his supporters are most numerous.

White House spokesman Alex Conant said the sympathies of the audience and the political leanings of the community are not factors in deciding which invitations to accept. "From our point of view, if the university invites him, then the university wants him," he said.

Interviews on campus suggest that students here have reached a hard-fought truce around the notion that it's an honor to host the president and worth hearing what he has to say.

Strolling with her father yesterday, Danielle Walsh, 22, a communications major from Lancaster who will be entering the Navy, marveled at the new flowers and other improvements that Bush's visit had spawned. New air-conditioning units have been installed in the hall where he will speak.

"It's good publicity," Walsh said. "Who wouldn't want the president to speak?"

But her father, Jim, a diesel mechanic, isn't thrilled. "I've been against Bush from the beginning," he said.

Aaron Conway, 23, the senior class president, who is applying to Coast Guard officer candidate school, finds a common sentiment among the '07 graduates: "There's a lot of `I don't really like him, but it would be cool to meet the president.'"

"I'm not saying it will be an unfriendly environment," said Rob Firment, a 1984 St. Vincent graduate and operations manager for a technology firm, who is helping to organize protests. "I'm saying that the invitation of such a divisive character has only served to create a controversy that overshadows the importance of the people of the day: the graduates."

Towey said he promised to "try to get the best for our students" when he arrived last summer. He's encouraged Bush supporters and detractors to put aside differences and use the thinking skills they have honed at St. Vincent when they listen to his speech.

"It is going to permit them to measure the man," he said.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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