Bob Kerrey has decided against speaking at Creighton University’s commencement next month, saying he would become a distraction if Republicans protested at the event.

The Nebraska GOP’s executive director, Ryan Hamilton, asked Creighton to rescind its invitation to Kerrey last week because of Kerrey’s support for abortion rights.

Kerrey informed the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson by letter Monday that he would take back his acceptance of an invitation to speak at Creighton’s two commencement ceremonies May 18. He said commencement “should be a moment of celebration” and should “not be interrupted with politics.”

Sign up for World-Herald news alerts

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Hamilton said Monday that the Republicans had no intention of disrupting the event or demonstrating at it.

Kerrey is a former Nebraska governor, U.S. senator from Nebraska and Medal of Honor recipient for his service in the Vietnam War. He is a Democrat who supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. Kerrey said it’s the civil right of women to make their own reproductive choices.

Hendrickson said in a letter Monday to the Creighton community that he appreciated Kerrey’s wish “to not have the focus of the day shifted away from our students.”

Hendrickson went on to say that Kerrey will participate in Creighton’s Presidential Lecture Series in the fall.

Hamilton said Monday that he respects Kerrey’s record of military service and knows he’s a respected Nebraskan.

“This is a very specific situation,” he said. An invitation to speak at commencement is a high honor, he said, and frequently comes with an honorary degree.

Hamilton said he didn’t intend to protest Kerrey’s appearances as a university panelist or anything to that effect. But Creighton is an “explicitly Catholic” university, he said, and it seemed out of place for the university to bestow a high honor on a person known for “advocating against the unborn.”

Kerrey said last week that terms such as “pro-abortion” are used as attention-grabbers. It’s a shame, he said, that American politics is in a spot where people cannot talk civilly about differing positions.

Kerrey said in a brief interview Monday that Hendrickson “did not want me to back down on this.” He said the Republicans “control the political landscape (of Nebraska) and they feel like they can do whatever they want to do.”

Kerrey sent Hamilton and Nebraska GOP Chairman Dan Welch a letter Monday in which he stated that he faced similar demands from students when he was president of the New School in New York.

“I expect it from young people who need to learn how to engage in important debates. I did not expect it from you,” Kerrey wrote, directing the comments to Welch and Hamilton in the same letter sent separately to each. “You, sir, should know better.”

Kerrey wrote in the letter to Hamilton and Welch that he didn’t want to disrupt commencement, “but I do not mind disrupting your day with this letter and a series of questions to which Nebraskans deserve answers.”

Among those questions, Kerrey asked if the Republicans would continue to insist that universities not invite speakers with whom they disagree.

He also asked Hamilton and Welch how they reached their decision and requested that they release all of their emails and text messages on the subject over the past 30 days.

Hamilton said the party had no obligation to release its private communiques. He said opposition to abortion is vital to Republicans “and we’re not going to be buffaloed into silence on it.”

Hamilton said in a press release Thursday that Creighton should find a new commencement speaker.

“Creighton is a Jesuit institution formally affiliated with the Catholic Church, one of the country’s most consistent and reliable advocates for pro-life causes,” Hamilton said. “Nebraska is a pro-life state and Republicans are a pro-life party. We strongly urge Creighton to take a stand for their pro-life values and find a more appropriate figure to honor at their upcoming commencement.”

Creighton will hold two commencement ceremonies at the CHI Health Center, and Kerrey was scheduled to speak at both. Hendrickson said he will work with his team to identify another speaker.

Creighton decided earlier this year to disinvite TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts for an awards ceremony.

Ricketts is a Catholic and the father of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican.

The university made the decision in February, when emails from 2009 to 2013 were made public in which Joe Ricketts participated in racist jokes, conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama and the derision of Islam. Joe Ricketts has apologized and said the emails don’t reflect his values.

Hamilton said that was not a factor in the request that the university rescind its invitation to Kerrey.

Kerrey’s son, Ben, received a bachelor’s degree from Creighton in the 1990s and is now a physician in Cincinnati, Kerrey said.

“I just feel duty-bound to give back to Creighton,” Bob Kerrey said last week. He isn’t a Catholic, but his son is.

In a press release last week, Hamilton said Kerrey “voted against banning the grisly and inhumane practice of partial birth abortion” while in the Senate. Hamilton also noted that Kerrey has an extremely low lifetime score with National Right to Life.

Hamilton said in an interview Monday that some Nebraska Republicans and stakeholders agreed that the party should speak up.

“We also wanted to speak out for our pro-life beliefs,” he said.

Kerrey and the Catholics differ widely on the issue of abortion, Hamilton said. “It doesn’t make sense” to have him speak there, he said.

Hamilton said this isn’t merely a political issue but one of “compassion, justice and humanity.”

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy., 402-444-1123

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments