William Dunbar: Students ask, 'Karl Rove? Karl who?'

If you don't go to UC Merced, you might think that having Karl Rove visit the campus was an occasion to arouse controversy.

Or you might think a visit from the former deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush was a moment for campus conservatives to rise up in solidarity.

Actually, for most students on campus, Rove's visit wasn't such a big deal.

When I asked a friend if he was going to hear the man once known as both "Boy Genius" and "Turd Blossom" (Bush's nickname for him) speak, his response was to look at me blankly and then ask, "Karl who?"

The roughly 725 people who did care enough to attend Karl Rove's speech last Friday at the Joseph Edward Gallo Recreation and Wellness Center on campus could not agree on politics or on the right nickname for the high-powered political consultant and Fox news commentator.

Some people went to show support for Rove and his conservative views, including the UC Merced College Republican Group and the Young Americans Foundation, which hosted the event. Others just showed up to see Rove and hear what he had to say.

Listening to conversations among audience members, I noticed that most people there seemed well versed in today's politics. I sat next to a kind lady, probably around my mom's age. We discussed our rather similar, more progressive views of politics, ranging from the propositions in the upcoming November election to the differences in the Obama administration and George W. Bush's (when Rove served in the White House).

My seatmate had come to campus from town to hear what Rove had to say. She felt it would be an interesting evening.

But many people weren't just there to say they saw Karl Rove. They came to learn from Rove.

Rove is the most well-known conservative ever to come to UC Merced to speak. Most conservatives who had made the trek to campus from town felt it was a good night, well worth the ticket price of $35. (A book-signing for Rove's recent book, "Courage and Consequence," followed his 30-minute talk.)

Many seemed to agree that Rove made some excellent points regarding the values that modern politicians should be focusing on, regardless of party affiliation. The College Republicans were pleased with Rove's appearance, talking about their opportunity to finally get a chance to have conservative viewpoints discussed on campus.

But others weren't so happy.

One of the more active protest groups at the event, the "No H8" protesters, proudly stood on the right side of the audience, giving silent voice to their concerns.

With hands folded across their chests, full-sized rainbow flags stationed at their side and duct tape secured over their lips, the protesters had written the phrase "NO H8" on the duct tape to reinforce their message. The reason for their protest is their belief that Rove has been intolerant toward LGBT issues, especially in his stand against gay rights and gay marriage.

Their protest attracted so much attention that many of the news cameras drifted over from Rove to the group and filmed footage of them. "It was frightening," one of the protesters remarked later on, "considering that my name and face are now going to be all over the news."

The audience was respectful of both Rove and the silent protesters. They did not, however, have much patience with the evening's one heckler.

One student tried to make his points loudly as Rove discussed President Obama's stimulus package. It didn't take long before the student was escorted from the building. People applauded the heckler's departure, as Rove commented that the man obviously only believed in "freedom of speech for just himself."

UC Merced is starting to make a reputation for itself in being able to bring in some high-profile people to speak on campus: Michelle Obama was at UC Merced for graduation 2009, and former President Jimmy Carter was here this past May.

Hopefully, the next time the Associated Students of UC Merced bring a prominent speaker to campus, more students will realize what a big deal it really is.

William Dunbar, from Modesto, is an undeclared major at UC Merced and hopes to be successful someday in his future profession.