Kennedy berates Bush, upsets some Republicans

On the proverbial eve of the Nov. 2 general election, environmental activist and lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had some harsh criticism for President Bush, and not everyone on Marquette's campus is happy about it.

Kennedy and actress Meg Ryan, who introduced him, spoke to a packed Varsity Theatre Thursday night about the decline of America's environment and the extent to which they claim it can be attributed to the Bush administration.

In his speech, Kennedy claimed that Bush and his administration officials, whom he regularly called cronies, are responsible for some 400 "environmental rollbacks." Kennedy accused the Bush White House of using "Orwellian logic" to mask their "evisceration" of environmental legislation.

In a pre-speech interview with the Tribune, Kennedy said the Bush administration is trying to allow utilities and power plants to emit more pollutants into the air with the Clear Skies Act, which is still in committees in both the U.S. House and the Senate.

"It's a stealth attack," Kennedy said in his speech. "The White House has gone to great lengths to disguise this attack.

"They will lie and lie and lie and tell you half-truths," he said. "It is amazing to me the lengths they will go to to avoid telling you the truth."

Coal-burning utilities and power plants were a major focus of Kennedy's speech.

Utilities and power plants release mercury and other harmful pollutants when they burn coal, he said, and the pollutants build up in the human body. Kennedy said one in six women has enough mercury in her womb to cause her children to be born with disabilities such as autism or retardation. He said the mercury levels in his own blood were high enough to cause his children to have cognitive impairment if he were a woman.

The Bush administration, Kennedy claimed, received $100 million from coal-burning utilities in the 2000 presidential election, and so is now returning the favor by relaxing harsh existing pollution standards and enacting lenient new ones.

"Clinton's (Environmental Protection Agency) was prosecuting these plants," Kennedy said. "One of the first things that President Bush did in office was order the Justice Department and EPA to drop these lawsuits."

Kennedy said the utility sector holds sway over Bush's administration officials as well.

"Today we have these large companies who are controlling these agencies through their lobbyists, their operatives," he said. "These individuals have not entered government to serve the public. They have entered it to subvert the very laws they are supposed to protect."

"Corporate power is flexing its muscles now in a way we've never seen before in American politics," Kennedy said later in his speech.

Furthermore, Kennedy said Bush's "corporate crony capitalism" is supporting industrial polluters.

"You show me a polluter, I'll show you a subsidy," he said.

Message causes controversey

Kennedy's appearance was a coordinated effort between the environmental group Environmental Accountability Fund and Marquette Student Government, according to MUSG Communications Vice President Nicole Garland, a senior in the College of Business Administration.

MUSG was approached by Kennedy's camp about booking the event, part of Kennedy's publicity for promoting his new book, "Crimes Against Nature."

"We did not approach (Kennedy) at all to come and speak at this school," Garland said. "MUSG did not seek out this speech at all."

When the Environmental Accountability Fund volunteered to pay Kennedy's appearance fee and it was determined that MUSG could meet Kennedy's booking needs, MUSG agreed to help bring Kennedy to campus by producing publicity materials, such as ads in the Tribune, posters and fliers. Advertisements for the event also appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but Garland said she was unsure of who paid for them.

Garland said she could not give an exact amount spent by MUSG on the event.

Some of Marquette's Republican students opposed MUSG's involvement in the event.

About 15 students from College Republicans and Students for Bush walked out of the event to protest what they felt was a misuse of their student activity fees, according to College Republicans Secretary Mary Ellen Burke.

"The second (the speech) turned partisan, we walked out," said Burke, a sophomore in the College of Communication. "We weren't trying to protest Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or his opinions, but we were simply trying to make a statement to the university that it's not OK for MUSG to fund a partisan event."

Burke said concerned students were told Kennedy's speech was an effort to educate students on environmental issues and not a political rally – a claim Burke and College Republicans are not buying.

"Instead of an informational session, it turned into a partisan rally five days before the election," Burke said. "They had to expect it to turn into a rally. MUSG does not have that excuse."

Garland said she was aware some students were unhappy with the event.

"I think it wound up being a beneficial and greatly-attended event," Garland said. "Whenever there's a speaker, there's always going to be someone who's unhappy" with the speaker.

Brandon Henak, chairman of the Marquette University College Republicans, also issued a three-page letter to MUSG president Tim Lefeber and Vice President of Student Affairs the Rev. Andrew Thon condemning MUSG's involvement in Kennedy's speech.

"Since Mr. Kennedy's appearance was partially sponsored by Marquette University Student Government, student activity fee dollars helped pay for his speech, and we object to the blatantly anti-Bush nature of the event," Henak wrote. The letter goes on to detail the organization's grievances, including that the Environmental Accountability Fund is a publicly anti-Bush organization. Henak said the political sway of the organization makes it a questionable co-sponsor of the event and that there was no "conservative counter-balance" to Kennedy.