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Speech debate about politics, not religion

Matt Pommer

The controversy swirling around Notre Dame University seems a replay of an incident 31 years ago in Wausau.

Notre Dame invited President Barack Obama to give the speech at a May 17 commencement ceremony in South Bend, Ind., angering conservatives.

Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. called Obama “the most notoriously pro-abortion president in history.” Notre Dame’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, said Obama’s appearance as commencement speaker should not be interpreted as an endorsement of his stance on specific issues.

Barbara Lyons, executive director of Wisconsin Right to Life, isn’t buying that answer. She said “millions of unborn children face death under Obama administration policies.” She compared it to having an avowed racist who favors slavery give the commencement address.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter came to Wausau to mark the 10th anniversary of the first election of David Obey, D-Wis., to the U.S. House of Representatives. Obey’s campaign staff rented the auditorium of Newman High School, a Catholic school in Wausau, to host the president.

Obey recalled what happened in his book “Raising Hell for Justice.”

Obey writes that a group of Republicans, many of them Catholics, urged Catholic Bishop William Freking to fire the principal of the high school for renting the hall for the occasion.

“Carter’s visit had nothing to do with abortion,” wrote Obey. “He had come to talk about the Middle East, human rights and economic policy. But it was turned into a confrontation about abortion by a group of my political enemies. The fired principal was not the only person hurt in the showdown.

“My grandfather, Chuck, was a devout Catholic. One afternoon, shortly after Carter’s visit, he was sitting on the front lawn when the paperboy delivered the daily edition of the Wausau Daily Herald.

“He opened the paper, read Fr. Langer (the principal) had been fired because he rented the hall to me, had a heart attack on the spot and died. The stress of seeing a controversy between me and the church to which he was devoted was too much for him,” wrote Obey.

The congressman said his grandfather and the principal were caught in a squeeze “between a small band of my political opponents who created a controversy where there should have been none.”

Some were genuinely concerned about abortion, “but for many it was simply a political opportunity to get at David Obey and a president they despised,” he wrote.

Getting a bishop to fire a high-school principal is one thing. More of a challenge for abortion foes is forcing Notre Dame to rescind its invitation to the president of the U.S.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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