GREECE — Although they didn’t all concur with the message being delivered, a small group from the University of Rochester’s Newman Community enjoyed the privilege of seeing the President of the United States in the flesh.
George W. Bush visited Greece Athena High School on May 24 to promote his proposal for overhauling the nation’s troubled Social Security system. His one-hour lecture marked the first time since 1989 that a sitting president had visited Rochester; the last to do so was Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush.
Father Brian Cool, the University of Rochester’s Catholic chaplain, attended the gathering with three young adults from the U of R. He said he was fortunate to acquire the coveted tickets through the office of Rep. Thomas R. Reynolds, R-N.Y.
“I think, for our local community, to have the president address significant issues is very exciting. It also personalizes him,” Father Cool said.
During his talk, Bush said the current Social Security system will not affect people born in 1950 or before. However, he said, future generations will be seriously crippled unless action is taken now. Bush explained this is due to the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age, combined with an overall greater life expectancy than when Social Security was begun in 1935 — meaning more people are collecting Social Security for longer periods of time.
Bush said Social Security stands to slip into the red by 2017 and be $200 billion in the hole 10 years later, forcing other taxes to be increased to cover the deficit.
“It’s a system that will be broke by 2041 unless we do something about it,” the president said.
Bush proposed giving citizens the option to privatize their Social Security money, earmarking it for investments that would potentially bring a much higher rate of return than the current format allows.
“We’re in a 401(k) culture. The investor class doesn’t belong to a privileged few,” Bush said.
Bush’s plan has faced stiff opposition in Congress. And although the Greece Athena auditorium filled frequently with applause at Bush’s remarks, attendees from the U of R said afterward they had reservations. Father Cool, who serves as chair of the diocesan Public Policy Committee, pointed out that “for some people to make money in our economy, other people lose money.”
“The stock market itself is an uncertain future,” agreed Bill Palin, 22, who graduated last month. He said that Bush’s plan would amount to “gambling the security of a group of individuals” and stands to “make the rich richer and the poor poorer.”
Amanda Holt said she’s not necessarily opposed to Bush’s proposal, but needs more information.
“I would want to hear more about it — how he would pick what companies that would be allowed into the program,” said Holt, 20, who just completed her junior year. “He also surrounded himself with people who didn’t ask him any questions.”
Yet Jonathan Vitale, 21, another recent U of R graduate, backed the president’s ideas. He said the government would likely play a large role in guiding people toward making good investment choices, and that “in the long run it could really benefit the working-class people. From the Catholic point of view, I think it can only do good things.”
He pointed out that Bush’s proposal only calls for voluntary investing in conservative stocks and bonds.
“History has shown us that conservative investing does pay off in the long run,” Vitale said.
The entire U of R group agreed that Bush calling attention to the issue is important.
“It’s a train wreck that needs to be talked about. That’s the one thing he’s done,” Palin said.
Although no controversy ensued inside the auditorium, such was not the case outside. Harry Murray and Sister of Mercy Grace Miller, two well-known Catholic activists, were detained by police for kneeling on the roadway at the school entrance after Bush’s motorcade passed and refusing to move. Both were protesting Bush’s support of the war in Iraq, with Murray holding a sign saying “The occupation of Iraq is a sin.”
Murray and Sister Miller were arrested for disorderly conduct and obstructing governmental administration, and Murray was also charged with resisting arrest. Both were arraigned in Greece Town Court and later released. They are scheduled to appear back in court June 14.
“I think the Gospel calls on us to speak out against evil, and President Bush lied to the American people about weapons of mass destruction and Hussein’s connection to al-Qaeda,” remarked Murray, a professor at Nazareth College in Pittsford.
Sister Miller, who operates the House of Mercy, an inner-city shelter, said she protested because of Iraq and Bush’s policies that she feels cripple the poor.
“I needed to put myself on the line to say I was opposed to his even coming to Rochester,” she said.