On the eve of Class Day, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is hard at work finishing his speech — just as some Yale seniors are rallying their peers to protest it.
On Monday, Blair will watch his eldest son, Euan Blair GRD ’08, receive a master’s degree in international relations from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. But before he can shift into the role of prideful parent, he has work to do — namely, to finish his Class Day address, a task he was completing Saturday, according to a spokesman, Matthew Doyle.
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Blair, who left office last June, arrived in New Haven on Friday and is staying at the ceremonial residence of University President Richard Levin at 43 Hillhouse Ave., Doyle said.
Meanwhile, an ad hoc group of seniors is finalizing the details of a protest planned during Blair’s speech at Class Day, scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday on the Old Campus. It would hardly be a first for the former prime minister; Blair, a close ally of President George W. Bush ’68, has often taken heat for support of the war in Iraq.
The group, calling itself Yale Seniors Against the War, said it hopes to demonstrate its resistance “to Yale’s obfuscation of Blair’s role in creating the worst foreign policy disaster in American history,” as it put it in a news release. During Blair’s speech, students plan to hold up signs — some emblazoned with the message “No War,” others that read “Peace Now” — while Blair speaks.
Some of the students will stand up in protest while he speaks, said Frances Kelley ’08, a spokeswoman for the group, which she said is being led by about 15 seniors. But those who protest will remain silent, Kelley said.
“We’re not doing anything that would make noise or disrupt the speech in any way,” she said, “because we feel that this is a really important weekend for so many families and we want to honor that.”
Told of the planned protest, Doyle emphasized that Blair supports the right to free speech. But he added that the students and families in attendance also have a right to hear the former prime minister’s address without disruption.
The ceremony itself, meanwhile, will be accompanied by stepped-up security.
Special arrangements this year include closing Old Campus housing to visiting families and relocating them to the residential colleges, according to Yale officials. Meanwhile, visitors to Old Campus will also have to pass through “airport-type screening,” as the Senior Class Council put it an its e-mail message to seniors.
The SCC announced on May 14 that Blair would be the Class Day speaker, confirming months of rumors that the former prime minister would be tapped for the speech. While Blair long ago agreed to speak at Class Day, the announcement of his speech was delayed for months for what University officials described as concerns about security.
Blair, 55, served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 until last June. Following his departure from 10 Downing St., Blair has taken up work as an envoy in the Middle East, as a consultant to several financial companies and, in his newest role, as Yale’s 2008 Howland
Distinguished Fellow. In that role, Blair will lead a course on faith and globalization at the Divinity School and School of Management and will also participate in several public events around campus next year.
Blair has been in the news this week for more than just his planned speech. On Wednesday, while flying to an investment conference in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, the plane carrying Blair drifted into Israeli airspace and did not respond to repeated radio calls from air traffic controllers demanding that it identify itself, The Associated Press reported.
Two Israeli fighter jets were scrambled to intercept the plane — only to then learn of its famous passenger, according to the A.P.
Doyle, sitting Saturday in the Woodbridge Hall office of University Secretary Linda Lorimer as he fielded calls from British newspapers readying their Sunday editions, chuckled when asked about the incident and said it had been overblown in the press. There was no such drama with Blair’s flight to the U.S., he added.
But in an unexpected turn of events, Blair’s speech on Sunday has in some ways been relegated to the back burner as another political icon comes to Connecticut for graduation festivities. Sen. Barack Obama, the leading Democratic candidate for president, will stand in for a recovering Sen. Ted Kennedy as the keynote speaker at Wesleyan University’s commencement on Sunday in Middletown, Conn.
Obama’s planned appearance generated so much buzz since it was announced Thursday that the university had to close its commencement to the public.