On the day that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University in New York, U.S. presidential candidates offered reaction ranging from support for academic freedom to harsh criticism of the university for inviting the Iranian president to speak.
Democratic Sen. Barack Obama said he would not have invited Ahmadinejad to speak on campus, noting that the Iranian president has other forums to air his views, among them the United Nations, where Ahmadinejad was scheduled to speak Tuesday. But Obama, a Columbia graduate, added that "one of the values that we believe in is the value of academic freedom," and said Columbia officials have the right to invite speakers of their choice.
Obama also stood by his position that he would meet with Ahmadinejad and other rogue leaders if elected. He has been criticized by his rivals for vowing to hold such meetings, a position Sen. Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has called "irresponsible and, frankly, naïve."
Clinton reiterated her position Monday at a press conference on Capitol Hill.
"We need a much more vigorous, robust and deep engagement, but that does not mean that the president of the United States should take part in such preliminary talks," she said.
Clinton said she " would not have invited" Ahmadinejad to speak if she were a university president. But she said she does not express an opinion about the decision made by Columbia.
Former Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, also criticized Obama's vow to meet with Ahmadinejad and other leaders.
"In the case of a leader like Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, Hugo Chavez, any of these leaders, you'd have to be extraordinarily careful that they would not use such a meeting for PR purposes or for propaganda purposes," he said.
Edwards characterized Ahmadinejad's positions as "abhorrent" but said it "is for Columbia to decide whether they want a man like this to be able to speak at their university."
Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" and called the Holocaust a "myth." President Bush has called Iran the "world's primary state sponsor of terror."
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, criticized Columbia while appearing on conservative pundit Bill Bennett's radio show this morning.
"It's a clear double standard and rank hypocrisy" on the part of Columbia to allow Ahmadinejad to speak, he said, and not allow the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC, on campus. On Thursday, Thompson said he would not have allowed Ahmadinejad into the country if he were president.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, also objected to Ahmadinejad's visit. "Instead of inviting him to speak at the United Nations and Columbia University, I believe he should be indicted under the Genocide Convention," the candidate said in a statement.
Romney also released a radio ad today claiming he is "leading the opposition" to Ahmadinejad's visit.
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said in a statement that he finds it "astonishing and astounding that Columbia University would welcome the president of a country that has not only dedicated itself to a policy of extinction of the state of Israel, but as he is speaking, most of the lethal and explosive devices are being exported from Iran into Iraq, endangering and taking the lives of brave Americans who are serving."
He added: "Meanwhile, Columbia University's belief in free speech does not extend to Reserve Officers' Training Corps units being allowed on their campus to attract outstanding young men and women to serve in the military."
Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is also running for the Republican nomination, spoke to a reporter today in Portland, Maine, about the Iranian president's visit.
"I think Columbia made the really wrong decision to invite him to be part of a distinguished lecture series," he said. "It makes no sense to give him this type of forum, to give him this type of dignity that Columbia has given him by allowing him to speak there, as if has some kind of serious opinion to offer."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican also running for president, harshly attacked the university at a recent press conference.
"If President Lee Bollinger follows through with this hosting of the leader of Iran, I will move in Congress to cut off every single type of federal funding to Columbia University," he said. "If the left-wing leaders of academia will not support our troops, they, in the very least, should not support our adversaries."