On television screens in many but not all of America’s schools, America’s president spent less than a half hour Tuesday trying to inspire students who are used to being talked at by adults.
So Barack Obama talked to them not only as a president but also as one who had been in their shoes, sat in their desks — and at times had messed up. He challenged them to take "responsibility" for their own education. As controversial speeches go, this one was the educational equivalent of an oration extolling motherhood. Yet for a week it became the media’s summer-end sideshow.
On television screens and all through the news media, conservative Republicans attacked Obama by impersonating pro wrestlers, wailing and moaning and pounding the mat in feigned pain. Pundits opined that politics hit an all time low.
Here in Hate City, as we will see, tempers are famously short, but attention spans are too. And Washington’s malady seems to have spread like a political pandemic.
The fury that ignited the furor over Obama’s speech began in Florida. On Sept. 1, a week before Obama’s speech to a Virginia high school, Florida’s Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer rushed a press release onto his party’s web site "condemning President Obama’s use of taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda." He was undeterred by the fact that he didn’t know what Obama would be saying and would be dead wrong in every attack claim:
"As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology. The idea that school children across our nation will be forced to watch the President justify his plans for government-run health care, banks, and automobile companies, increasing taxes on those who create jobs, and racking up more debt than any other President, is not only infuriating, but goes against beliefs of the majority of Americans, while bypassing American parents through an invasive abuse of power."
Soon school districts everywhere were being pressured by talk radio, the blogosphere and editorialists to ban the president’s speech.
Washington’s Democrats rushed to blast Obama’s bleating-heart critics for fear mongering — and they were right. So right, in fact, that they must have forgotten that history was only repeating itself — but in mirror image. And 18 years ago, they were the critics who were oh so wrong.
On Oct. 1, 1991, President George H. W. Bush went to a Washington high school and delivered the same basic message Obama gave this past week — stay in school, study, say no to drugs. The Education Department staged the event. And Democrats responded by wailing and moaning and pounding the media mat as if in agony.
"The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students," House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., said, as reported by The Washington Post. "And the president should be doing more about education than saying, ‘Lights, camera, action.’"
A House committee convened a hearing; the chairman’s aide said the boss was "steamed."
In contrast, the House Minority Whip emoted equanimity. "Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education?" asked Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. "It was done at a nonpolitical site and was beamed to a nonpolitical audience."
While Bush’s speech was workmanlike, Obama’s was eloquent in its simplicity yet complexity — laying out challenges ranging from achieving greatness to protecting those who are being teased and bullied.
Here’s exactly what I was thinking as Obama spoke: I would love to have every child in America read it, think about it, and learn that they should stay in school and should study.
But those aren’t my words. They are Newt Gingrich’s, after NBC Today Show host Matt Lauer asked him Tuesday if he saw any reason conservatives should criticize Obama’s speech. "This country would be much better off" if Obama’s speeches maintained that tone, he said.
Gingrich might have added that America "would be much better off" if both parties muzzled their most rabid attack dogs.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)