With students up in arms about everything from tuition hikes to the closing of popular academic and elective programs, UCSB has seen plenty of protests recently.
“We’ve been having protests all (academic) year, but nothing like this,” UCSB communications director George Foulsham said of the protesters assembled outside of Campbell Hall on Thursday evening.
Karl Rove — Republican political strategist and former senior adviser and White House deputy chief of staff for then-President George W. Bush — soon would be speaking to an audience of about 700 students, at an event sponsored by the College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation.
“There’s nothing like Karl Rove to pack ‘em in,” Foulsham said.
College Republicans said they wanted a controversial speaker to attract more people to their event, said Ryan McNicholas, the group’s fundraising chairman.
“If you get a controversial character, you get a lot more people out there talking about the issues,” McNicholas said before introducing Rove. “College Republicans are a proud few. We support true diversity — diversity of thought.”
In the hour leading up to Rove’s speech, more than 100 student protesters — with a few community members mixed in — gathered outside of Campbell Hall to express their displeasure at having a man they view as “a war criminal” on campus, particularly since some of his speaking fee was paid with funds culled from student fees. Replete with hand-painted signs, jeers of “war criminal!” and the regular chanting of slogans, the gathering had all the trappings of a good old-fashioned protest — right down to the guy leaning against a tree strumming an acoustic guitar as he sang a few bars from Buffalo Springfield’s 1960s protest ballad, “For What It’s Worth.”
A quick poll of the crowd showed that a number of different views existed. Max Einstein, a third-year black studies and German major from Venice, was holding a large plywood sign with pictures of Rove and Joseph Goebbels arranged side by side.
“A lot of people probably look at this sign and say, ‘That guy’s an idiot,’” he explained. “But if you look at Rove’s function in society, a strong connection can be made.
“Rove is much more subtle (than were the Nazis). The Bush administration basically declared war on the Muslim world. It’s a soft racism, but it’s just as dangerous.”
Jon Coleman, a self-described conservative who was waiting in line to get past the security screen, said he just wanted to hear what Rove had to say.
“His supporters say he’s a smart guy and people who don’t like him say he’s cold and calculating,” Coleman said. “Either way, he was extremely influential in the Bush administration, and to get a guy of that stature here is, I think, a good thing.”
Security was tighter than at most events on campus. A bomb-sniffing black Labrador retriever checked all bags, and many ticket holders were frisked by the UCSB Police Department’s community service officers.
It took a while for everyone to get through security, meaning that Rove didn’t begin speaking until nearly an hour after his scheduled start. Greeted by an even mixture of applause and booing, he dove right in, tackling President Barack Obama’s economic recovery policies as his first topic.
“The question is, what did (President Obama) do with his victory?” Rove queried rhetorically. “The answer is that he did not govern as he said he would.”
Rove attacked Obama’s current policies — everything from his handling of the bailout to the health-care reform battle being waged on Capitol Hill — and he expressed disappointment that Obama has not remained the “relentless centrist” he campaigned as.
“No country in the history of the world has ever spent its way to recovery,” Rove said to applause from the front of the room and sporadic catcalls from most of the rest of it.
“I don’t want to be completely critical of the president,” Rove said. “He’s done a few good things. One of them is Iraq.”
Amid shouts of “war criminal!” and “congressional subpoenas!” Rove explained that Obama was helping to win the war on terror by recognizing the strategic value of what his immediate predecessor had been doing in Iraq and later applying it in Afghanistan. He did not, however, agree with most of Obama’s foreign policy maneuvers, calling his stances toward Iran and the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference largely unsuccessful.
“It is right for America to be engaged in the world, but it is also right for America to be respected, and in some cases feared,” he said.
Rove defended the Bush administration’s decision to initiate the 2003 invasion of Iraq, asserting that having a stable ally in the oil-rich Middle East is crucial to global stability. Responding to a student asking him to further justify the Iraq invasion, Rove deflected the question, listing a number of Democratic senators who supported the war resolution, even reading a transcript of a fiery speech by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, supporting it.
He did not, however, elaborate upon a contention by some that Bush administration officials may have falsified documents regarding Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction and radioactive materials prior to the war. Aside from a few shouts he answered directly, Rove responded to questions that had earlier been submitted by e-mail and vetted by Campus Democrats and Republicans. A clumsily worded question penned by a student who was not in the audience asked why Rove had planted WMDs when U.N. inspectors couldn’t find any.
“Because they’re much too valuable. I might find a need for them one day,” he said to laughter from the audience.
Aside from about 20 students causing a commotion when they walked out of the hall while jeering Rove toward the beginning of the lecture, and a few profane catcalls here and there, the presentation went off without a hitch. Most of Rove’s comments were aimed at the massive fiscal challenges the Obama administration and the nation are facing, but he urged people to work through ideological differences to achieve common goals.
“We have different political views, and we’re all going to get wired up about elections,” he said, “but there’s one thing that this is all about. This is about our country. This is about our shared experience.”