Bob Kerrey’s withdrawal as Creighton speaker is ‘a scary precedent,’ UNL professor says

Bob Kerrey’s withdrawal as Creighton speaker is ‘a scary precedent,’ UNL professor says
Bob Kerrey said Monday that he would not speak at Creighton’s commencement after Nebraska GOP Executive Director Ryan Hamilton asked the university to rescind its invitation to Kerrey because of his position on abortion. SARAH HOFFMAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

WASHINGTON — Bob Kerrey’s canceled commencement appearance reflects the no-holds-barred political polarization reigning in America today.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln political science professor John Hibbing compared the current climate to the political turmoil of the 1960s — but with Twitter and Facebook thrown into the mix.

And Hibbing lamented the state Republican Party’s objections to Kerrey’s selection as a speaker at Creighton University’s commencement.

Those party leaders cited the Democrat’s support for abortion rights, which they cast as incompatible with the values of a Jesuit institution.

But Kerrey also served as Nebraska’s governor and represented the state for 12 years in the U.S. Senate.

“The logical extension of this is that anytime one of the major political parties doesn’t like one of the votes that was cast by a potential speaker, then they can veto that speaker,” Hibbing said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a scary precedent.”

It’s unlikely that the Nebraska Republican Party sees Kerrey as a threat in future elections. He ran for Nebraska’s open Senate seat in 2012 but lost by a wide margin to Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.

But Kerrey has been opining on political issues of the day, from the investigation into Russian election interference to President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

During a CNN appearance last month, Kerrey suggested that the president dodged the draft during the Vietnam War by falsely claiming to have bone spurs in his feet.

The pushback isn’t limited to one party.

Fox News reported that Taylor University students and alumni have started a petition to rescind Vice President Mike Pence’s invitation to speak at that school’s commencement ceremony next month.

“Inviting Vice President Pence to Taylor University and giving him a coveted platform for his political views makes our alumni, faculty, staff and current students complicit in the Trump-Pence Administration’s policies, which we believe are not consistent with the Christian ethic of love we hold dear,” the petition says.

And Kerrey has previous firsthand experience with commencement controversy. After leaving the Senate, Kerrey took over as president of the New School in New York.

Many left-leaning students there objected to having a leader they saw as too conservative for their school.

And one flashpoint came when Kerrey invited his former colleague, fellow Vietnam War veteran and Iraq War defender John McCain, to speak at the school’s commencement.

Students heckled the Republican senator from Arizona during that speech.

Hibbing said there are certainly some out-of-bounds people who would use a high-profile platform to foster conspiracy theories, spread racism or advocate violence.

“There are some reasons to exclude speakers, but they’re really few and far between,” Hibbing said. “Anybody who’s conscientiously served their country and attempted to do what was right, I think we’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Graham Ramsden, an associate professor of political science at Creighton, said those most willing to do the heavy work of organizing and advocating have always had a political advantage.

“Unfortunately, those who are the most motivated to do all that are those on the political extremes,” he said. “They have the loudest voices, and hence punch above their weight.”

In today’s world, that dynamic is exacerbated by the Internet and media segmentation, Ramsden said, giving critics an outsize influence.

“As a result, they have the ability to veto something like Kerrey’s commencement,” he said, “even though the vast majority of folks in the audience — including those who disagree with him on abortion — would be perfectly happy to let him speak.”