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Truthdigger of the Week: Jean Rohe

Truthdig salutes New School University graduating senior Jean Rohe, whose commencement speech at Madison Square Garden on Friday preemptively struck against the address that Sen. John McCain was due to deliver directly after her.

Below, you’ll find links to the speech, biographical information on Rohe, and the instantly infamous response by one of McCain’s staffers in which he insulted Rohe’s graduating class and called her an “idiot” in print.

UPDATE: Rohe responds to the McCain staffer: “Please don’t try to bully me anymore.”

UPDATE #2: Rohe goes on MSNBC.


As she says in a blog at the Huffington Post, Rohe had been planning to deliver a traditional commencement speech until the night before graduation but decided at the last minute that she had a moral obligation to speak out against McCain, who was scheduled to receive an award during the ceremony and was due to speak directly after her. And because McCain had said publicly he would deliver the same speech at the New School that he had at several other universities earlier this year, Rohe had a minor epiphany:

What if I tore McCain’s speech apart before he even opened his mouth? After reading his speech a couple of times I picked out a few particularly loathsome sections–and believe it or not, none of these actually came from the extensive section where he defends his position on the war in Iraq–and I began planning an attack against him using his own words.

Cleverly anticipating the part of McCain’s speech in which he would tell students that “dissent and disagreement are our ‘civic and moral obligation’ in times of crisis,” Rohe told the packed audience at Madison Square Garden, “I consider this a time of crisis and I feel obligated to speak.” She then criticized the Arizona senator on his support for the Iraq war:

I am young, and although I don’t profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us, I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong, that George Bush’s agenda in Iraq is not worth the many lives lost.

She then closed on a note of unity and inclusion:

These words I speak do not reflect the arrogance of a young strong-headed woman, but belong to a line of great progressive thought, a history in which the founders of this institution play an important part. I speak today, even through my nervousness, out of a need to honor those voices that came before me, and I hope that we graduates can all strive to do the same.

Click here

to read the speech in full, in addition to an essay she wrote for the Huffington Post on the story behind the address.

News of Rohe’s speech and student demonstrations against McCain made news all over the country, and Rohe’s essay on the Huffington Post garnered a huge amount of reader response (17 pages worth as of Sunday night). On Saturday night, Mark Salter, a longtime McCain aide who helped to draft the senator’s commencement speech, posted a hostile comment on the Huffington Post in response to Rohe’s essay. He wrote, in part:

It took no courage to do what you did, Ms. Rohe. It was an act of vanity and nothing more…. The only person you have succeeded in making look like an idiot is yourself….

You took exception to the paragraph in which he lightly deprecated the vanity of youth. Well, Ms. Rohe, [you] and your fellow graduates’ comical self-importance deserves a rebuke far stronger than the gentle suggestions he offered you. So, let me leave you with this. Should you grow up and ever get down to the hard business of making a living and finding a purpose for your lives beyond self-indulgence some of you might then know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of living in an echo chamber. And if you are that fortunate, you might look back on the day of your graduation and your discourtesy to a good and honest man with a little shame and the certain knowledge that it is very unlikely any of you will ever posses the [sic] one small fraction of the character of John McCain.

Click here

to read the response in full (after clicking, search for “Mark Salter” in the list of comments).

Salter’s comments aside, it did take guts to do what Rohe did, and that’s why she is our Truthdigger of the Week.

Here are some biographical details on Rohe (from the Huffington Post):

Jean Rohe, a BA/BFA graduate of the Jazz Program and Eugene Lang [College] [at New School University], was born in Paterson, New Jersey in 1984. As a youngster, Jean grew up singing and performing folk music with her family. Jean spent a year at Smith College followed by a summer at the Universidad de la Habana in Cuba on scholarship where she honed her Spanish skills, learned about Cuban history, culture, and politics, and made some of her dearest friends. Since she transferred to the New School in 2002, Jean has sung in venues throughout New York City, including the Birdland, Sweet Rhythm, the Cornelia Street Caf, Detour, Barbs, and others. She also teaches and performs music for young children at the Third Street Music School Settlement and at venues throughout the city. She recently completed her senior work at Eugene Lang, an audio documentary about her trip to Israel/Palestine during the Gaza disengagement last August. In July she will be performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

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