As long as John Ashcroft had the lectern, Skidmore College didn’t need anyone to control the crowd Wednesday night.
The former attorney general commanded the room and refused to be interrupted when answering questions students lobbed at him on everything from the Patriot Act to the war in Iraq to abortion.
A crowd of at least 600 people listened to Ashcroft’s speech in Palamountain Hall Wednesday evening, packing Gannett Auditorium where he appeared in the flesh and also filling Davis Auditorium, a snack bar and a front lobby where the appearance was simulcast.
The mostly student crowd was respectful of the former Bush administration official, with no visible protests.
Ashcroft’s talk was also broadcast on the college’s closed circuit TV, so students could watch it in their rooms. “But they’d rather be here,” said spokeswoman Andrea Wise.
The attorney general from 2001 to 2005 spoke on “Leadership in Challenging Times,” focusing on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and how they changed the government’s methods of investigating terrorism.
He remembered a meeting with President George W. Bush right after the attacks.
“He looked in my direction and he said, ‘Don’t ever let this happen again.’ And I took that as a personal charge,” Ashcroft recalled.
By that Saturday, the first draft of the Patriot Act was written. It allowed the government to wiretap communications of suspected terrorists and those who associated with or financed them.
It was signed just 45 days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ashcroft insisted that personal freedom and privacy rights can coexist with beefed-up security. “Security is designed to reinforce or enhance freedom,” he said.
“Some people complain about the security we have at the airports now. Well, let me tell you, I’m freer now to fly.”
But students will probably most remember Ashcroft’s verbal slip when he referred to Barack Obama in passing as “Osama” when mentioning that the Illinois senator supported the Patriot Act. Gannett Auditorium erupted as students reacted to the gaffe.
“It was an unfortunate mistake, and I’m sure it was a slip,” said senior Megan McAdams after the speech. “But I’m sure that it’s going to be talked about around campus a lot.”
Ashcroft was replaced by Alberto Gonzales after he left office, and Gonzales obtained a reauthorization of the Patriot Act in 2006.
Ashcroft was a U.S. senator from Missouri and also that state’s governor before he became attorney general.
The Skidmore Young Republican Assembly sponsored the talk.
Local GOP officials in attendance included county Supervisor Matthew Veitch, county Republican Committee Chairman Jasper Nolan, Mayor Scott Johnson, Anthony “Skip” Scirocco, commissioner of public works, and Kate Jarosh, deputy commissioner of finance.
Ashcroft’s appearance generated plenty of buzz at the college, where someone drew a swastika on a large poster at the CASE Center advertising Ashcroft’s talk.
College officials said Wednesday they were investigating the incident as they would any other case that may involve bias. The swastika was discovered March 25 and subsequently covered.
Even though she doesn’t see eye to eye with Ashcroft, senior Jamie Worrall was glad to see him on campus, and snagged a third-row seat in the auditorium.
“I’m definitely a Democrat, and I’m definitely against a lot of his policies,” said Worrall, from Gloucester, Mass.
“I’m personally a supporter of creating this dialog on campus,” she said.