- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2007

President Bush in May will swoop into the home district of Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and his fiercest Iraq-war critic, to deliver a commencement address at a Catholic liberal arts college where some students already are petitioning to stop the presidential visit.

In an “Open Letter to President Bush from Saint Vincent College Friends, Students and Alumni,” the online petition charges that the president is “squandering […] the lives of our troops by clinging to failed tactics in an ill-conceived, unjustified war” and his policies “are at odds with our values.”

“Archabbot [Douglas R.] Nowicki, the College’s chancellor, believes that your address would help to ‘burnish our reputation as one of the finest liberal arts schools in the country,’ but we believe that linking the school to your administration would irreparably tarnish Saint Vincent,” the petition says.

The small liberal arts college of 1,700 students, located in the Laurel Highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania, is led by H. James Towey, who served as director of Mr. Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

So far, just 142 persons have signed on to the online petition. Mr. Towey, who became the Benedictine college’s president in July, said the petition is not what it appears.

“I think we’re hearing from a vocal minority right now. Of that group that signed the petition, only a dozen or two are current students,” he said.

Mr. Towey said he knew the May 11 visit by the president would draw some protests from students. He has scheduled a gathering of students April 17 to discuss the presidential visit.

“Being no stranger to hearing criticism about the president — in the faith-based office, I heard it all the time — I got an e-mail today that said the president’s the anti-Christ. So, you know, I did not have the slightest delusion that inviting the president here was going to be received with universal acclaim,” he said.

He said that, contrary to the charge in the petition, Mr. Bush’s visit does not compromise the school’s ideals.

“Archabbot Douglas would not have invited the president of the United States if he felt that he was in any way diminishing our Catholic Benedictine identity. And second, this is the president of the United States. I’ll let others talk about the president’s war policy, his embryonic stem-cell stance, his global AIDS initiative and the others issues that would be brought to bear on that discussion,” Mr. Towey said.

Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino said that the White House was aware that the college is in Mr. Murtha’s district, but added that while “the commencement address topic isn’t set yet, they tend not to be political.”

Mr. Murtha, a former colonel in the Marine Corps who earned two Purple Hearts as a soldier in Vietnam, has been the most vocal Democratic critic of the Iraq war. In November 2005, he set off a firestorm when he called for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the country, and has called the American presence there an “occupation.”

Murtha spokesman Matt Mazonkey said he thought Mr. Bush picked the school “because of his past relationship with the new president of the new campus.” Asked whether his boss objected to the visit, he said, “I can’t speak to that. I haven’t given it a lot of thought.”

The spokesman said Mr. Murtha was unavailable for comment.

St. Vincent College, founded in 1846, has had a diverse group of people speak at its commencement — including Mr. Murtha in 1983. Others include Rep. Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, in 2004; then-Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., Massachusetts Democrat, in 1986; and conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr. in 1971.

The college even had Fred Rogers of TV’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame in 2000. “He didn’t get the reaction we’re getting today,” Mr. Towey joked.

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