The protest proceeded as promised — silent, without disruption. The unmentioned “threats” against the featured speaker never materialized. The weather held.
And the jokes, most agreed, were even funny.
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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair bid the Yale class of 2008 adieu on Sunday at this year’s Class Day, an afternoon of celebration and levity mixed with nostalgia and, for a change, spectacular weather. Neither the months of security worries about Blair’s appearance nor the threat of a protest from a group of graduating seniors opposed to the war in Iraq cast any hint of a dour tone on the occasion.
Blair, now a special envoy to the Middle East, warned that the graduating Elis face a slew of challenges nothing short of unimaginable to his own generation. In a thesis that no doubt resonated with University President Richard Levin, Blair urged the youngest batch of Yale alumni to turn their eyes to emerging global powers like China and India, noting that “for the first time in many centuries, power is moving East.”
And, echoing a message that has been a constant refrain of Levin’s presidency, Blair called on graduating Elis to embrace internationalization and cross-cultural dialogue.
“Most of all we should know that in this new world, we must clear a path to partnership, not stand off against each other, competing for power,” Blair said, noting the issues of climate change, food scarcity and global terrorism all call for a spirit of global community.
“The conclusion,” Blair said, “is that we make it work together, or not at all.”
Blair, who will teach a course on faith and globalization at the University this fall, processed into the Old Campus shortly after 2 p.m. under a cloudless sky and tight security. Earlier in the day, Levin’s ceremonial residence on Hillhouse Ave., where Blair had been staying, had been transformed into a veritable fortress as the former prime minister readied for his Class Day appearance.
But once at the podium, the mood lightened.
“I know you Yale guys are smart,” Blair said. “So, what can I tell you that you don’t already think you know?”
He found much to share. Blair quipped about matters ranging from accidentally coming onto the French prime minister to the unsightliness of the seniors’ traditionally colorful hats. The former British prime minister even took the chance to offer a snipe at the erstwhile English colony.
“After 100 years of Class Days, finally you get a British speaker,” Blair joked. “What took you so long? Did that little disagreement of 1776 really rankle so much?”
And from the looks of things, the crowd loved it. Old Campus — a sea of faces edging back to a few vacant chairs — rocked to Blair’s jokes but never broke the pace of Blair’s oration until he broached the subject of parenthood. A roll of applause stopped the address after Blair declared that despite all the difficulties of raising children, one singular fact remained.
“The plain, unvarnished truth is we love you,” he confessed. “Simply, profoundly, utterly.”
As he placed himself back in the role of prideful parent — after all, his eldest son, Euan Blair GRD ’08, will receive a master’s degree on Monday — Blair recalled what it was like to be in college himself. He thanked the students for inviting Euan to so-called naked parties — and then thanked Euan for declining the invitations.
But in his day, Blair said he may not have showed Euan’s judgement. He recalled returning home after his first year at Oxford with shaggy hair, ripped jeans and a sleeveless topcoat fashioned from an old pair of drapes. But, he told his father, not all was lost: He did not do drugs.
“My dad looked me in the eye,” Blair recalled, “and said, ‘Son, the bad news is if you’re looking like this and you’re not doing drugs, we’ve got a real problem.’ “
The crowd roared — as it did often through the two-hour ceremony, which also included several addresses from graduating seniors, a video montage and the awarding of undergraduate prizes and teaching awards.
The protest planned for Blair’s speech, meanwhile, did not end up proving much of a disturbance. The group behind the protest, Yale Seniors Against the War, had said it hoped 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 in reference to the war in Iraq.
During Blair’s speech, some 50 Elis hoisted red paper signs emblazoned with the messages “No War” and “Peace Now.” A few of them stood, their backs to the former prime minister, as he spoke.
But, as promised, the protesters said not a word.
The entire event, meanwhile, was steeped in stepped-up security. Visiting families were housed in the residential colleges rather than on the Old Campus, and students living in post-term housing on Old Campus were greeted Sunday morning by bomb-sniffing dogs inspecting their suites.
The announcement that Blair would speak at Class Day — made May 14 — was delayed for months because of what University officials described as concerns about security. That security was out in full force on Sunday: Police in full body armor stood outside 43 Hillhouse Ave., and members of Blair’s security detail circled the dais during Class Day.
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 to 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.
Yale’s graduation festivities will continue on Monday with Commencement, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on the Old Campus. Just as members of the class of 2008 and their families enjoyed balmy weather on Sunday, the conditions Monday should be just as pleasant: The National Weather Service projects sun with a high temperature of 78 degrees.