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Presidential scholar confronts the president

Gives Bush letter decrying torture

WELLESLEY -- Usually, the high school seniors who win the federal government's highest honor just go to the White House, pick up their Presidential Scholars medal, and get their picture taken for posterity with the president.

Mari Oye had other ideas.

In the Georgetown University dormitory the night before the big moment, the newly minted Wellesley High graduate persuaded 49 of her 140 fellow scholars to sign a letter she and a dozen others had drafted and she had just written longhand on notebook paper, calling on President Bush to reject torture and treat terrorism suspects humanely.

Before the scholars posed for a photo with Bush on Monday, she handed him the letter. He put it in his pocket and took it out after the photo shoot. Reading silently to himself, the president looked up quizzically at Oye and said, according to her, "We agree. America doesn't torture people."

The minute-long confrontation earned the Yale-bound student a mention in The New York Times and other national media outlets. Dana Perino , White House deputy press secretary, also responded later Monday. "The president enjoyed a visit with the students, accepted the letter and upon reading it let the student know that the United States does not torture and that we value human rights," Perino said.

Some other presidential scholars were not happy, saying that the letter's presentation spoiled their moment.

"I'm sure we can all agree torture is not a good thing. It was just the means of how they were going about it," said Amanda Berbert , 18, of Centerville, Utah.

Oye is not backing down.

"I really felt l could not just go down and smile for the camera and not say anything," she said in an interview yesterday at her home. "There are some things that are more important than the decorum of protocol."

A US Department of Education spokeswoman said yesterday the students who signed the letter would not be stripped of their scholar titles. "Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of our democracy and we're glad American students are exercising a right that so many others around the world aren't able to enjoy," Katherine McLane said.

Oye, 18 , said her Quaker background has greatly influenced her activism, teaching her "to follow the course of what is right." At Wellesley High, she helped an Afghan soap-making cooperative, founded by women under threat from the Taliban, find a market in the United States. She also found time to be on the school's track and cross-country teams.

As a child, her mother said, Oye didn't take naps because she said she "didn't want to miss anything." Oye was encouraged to speak up at the White House by her mother, Willa Michener , who regrets that when she was a presidential scholar in 1968, she did not tell President Lyndon B. Johnson about her opposition to the Vietnam War. Michener took the advice of her favorite teacher, who said there were other ways to protest.

"I would have defied my president, but I didn't want to defy my beloved English teacher," she said.

Michener, 55, a former lawyer for the US Treasury, said her daughter called her by cellphone to tell her what she had done while Michener was touring the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. "When she had the opportunity to make a statement, she took it so I was as pleased as could be," she said yesterday.

Oye's father, Kenneth, 57, an MIT professor who was on business in Switzerland, was proud when he was told, Michener said.

Oye said her activism was also influenced by her grandparents on her father's side, who were in internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Her grandfather, George Oye , died this spring and she mentioned his experiences in the brief conversation with the president about the letter, she said.

"My grandfather was not angry or bitter after the internment, but he came out with a strong sense of wanting to help people," she said.

Oye wasn't trying to draw attention to herself, she said, but respectfully expressing a view that many Americans share.

"I don't think there are enough opportunities for people to do that, whether they're a general or Cabinet member or the American public," she said. "With all the pain and suffering that happens around the world right now, it would have been extremely inappropriate not to use the opportunity to make a difference."

She plans to study English or international relations in the fall. She said she has no idea what she wants to do, but insists politics is not in her future.

"I hope to never run for political office in my life."