In March of 1984, Henry Kissinger participated in a forum at U.T.-Austin – and complained that foreign policy is too public, making it difficult for professional diplomats like himself to do their self-appointed jobs. Fifty-three noisy protestors were arrested. (One person yelled, quite accurately, “This man’s hands are stained with the blood of hundreds of thousands of people.”) Nobody died, nobody got hurt, nobody even received (too bad) a pie in the face. The University and the Republic somehow muddled onward through the fog.
Sixteen years later, we are expected to observe a moment of tragic silence in honor of poor Henry, statesman without portfolio, who abruptly unvolunteered to speak last month at U.T.-Austin’s LBJ Library, in response to planned public protests. Library director Harry Middleton told Kissinger that the university police and the Secret Service believed the protest would be “of sufficient magnitude to pose a threat to public safety.” Kissinger’s press release intoned, “I regret the circumstances that have caused the cancellation of this year’s Harry Middleton lecture created by Mrs. (Lady Bird) Johnson, and any embarrassment suffered by this great former first lady and valued friend.” Chancellor William Cunningham was deplored “those who would shout down an invited speaker,” and President Larry Faulkner chimed in, denouncing supposed “threats of assault on a peaceable, academic assembly…. The tactics are both immoral and inimical to the public interest.” The university administrators declined to provide a scintilla of evidence of any actual “threat to public safety,” yet Faulkner ominously promised “new and appropriate steps” to prevent future protests.
Hogwash and horsefeathers.
The academic bureaucrats and their thoroughly dishonorable guest cowered in anticipation not of “threats of assault,” but of public embarrassment – to them and to Kissinger. As the Butcher of Cambodia and the Consigliere of Nixon, Suharto, and Pinochet richly deserves, there would undoubtedly have been noisy, impertinent, and obstreperous campus demonstrations in response to his visit, and almost certainly some audience members would have shouted loudly and demanded rudely that he stand accountable for his shamelessly murderous career. Some protestors might even have been arrested, in a long and quite healthy tradition of civil disobedience and protest. The university could not produce evidence of “threats to public safety” because there is no such evidence – only their own paranoia that a public protest “of sufficient magnitude” against Kissinger might embarrass them and annoy their financial and political patrons.
Forgive us if the tears fail to flow.
In the wake of Kissinger’s self-cancellation, hypocritical administrators – who repeatedly refuse to engage the students in a substantive discussion of real U.S. history – have assumed the tattered robes of “free speech.” Prior to the speech, students were told all questions of the Esteemed Dr. K must be submitted in writing – now the administrators suddenly claim he was willing to answer questions from the floor. Local editorialists quickly decried “the radicals,” shamelessly singling out for blame U.T. journalism professor Robert Jensen, who should instead be congratulated for helping students organize the protest as well as an informative, standing-room only Kissinger Teach-In (which none of these stalwart defenders of public discourse bothered to attend). Indeed, it would be refreshing if a few more of Jensen’s colleagues had the consistent gumption to protest, organize, or to simply speak for justice. Even the student newspaper, the Daily Texan, joined the chorus with some tired rhetoric of the “pox-on-both-their-houses” variety.
A few days later, enterprising student reporters discovered that the Secret Service – which objected to being made “a scapegoat” by administrators – had not advised U.T. to cancel Kissinger’s speech. The student journalists might also have looked back at their own 1984 coverage of Kissinger’s last U.T. fiasco. In September, a few months after his visit, vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro spoke at the Arlington campus, and delivered her speech despite loud heckling and jeering from Ronald Reagan supporters, who rudely insisted on chanting “Four more years!” Nobody died, nobody got hurt, nobody got a pie in the face. Indeed, thanks to the curious forbearance of university police at this obvious threat to public safety, nobody even got arrested.
Of course, Ferraro’s dignity is not as easily insulted as the helium-bloated ego of Henry Kissinger, who should in fact be grateful he and his defenders weren’t tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail.