There may be a lesson plan for grown-ups in the contrived controversy about Barack Obama’s back-to-school pep talk to students. It would be to do your homework, just as the president told the pupils.

That way, the people who protested the Obama speech before they knew what was in it would have realized there is nothing unusual about a president appearing at a public school as the classroom year begins. The previous three Republicans have and there wasn’t any stir, aside from some Democratic nitpicking about White House expenses, proving that neither party has a monopoly on pettiness. It was routine. As, in the end, Obama’s Tuesday talk was.

Then again, many people doing the complaining, and certainly the broadcast talkers and anti-Obama bloggers who fomented the whole business, were not looking for information or for reasons not to make a fuss. They wanted one, and got it.

At least some of the complainants presumably took advantage of the White House’s early release of Obama’s text, 24 hours in advance, so they could read what he was going to say and make sure it wasn’t offensive.

And one formerly outraged Republican, Florida state GOP chairman Jim Greer, who had said the president was trying to promote socialist ideology, relented after reading the text and said it was appropriate. Although he also was quoted as wondering whether Obama would really give the same speech.

Of course he did, urging students in his televised talk at an Arlington, Va., high school to study, work hard and stick to it, all the things a president would be expected to say in such a setting.

"I expect you to get serious this year," the president said. "I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you.

"So don’t let us down — don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it."

There was no count of his student audience; millions, presumably, despite the schools and school districts that blacked out the president because of parent protests, which were most vehement in Republican areas.

It was an invented and inflated controversy in which the administration provided its foes an easy target by issuing a proposed lesson plan in which students would have been asked to help the president meet his goals. That was revised to ask pupils to write letters about their own goals and how they would try to achieve them.

There were no Republican complaints in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush spoke at a Washington, D.C., school and told the students, "Write me a letter — I’m serious about this one — write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals."

Nor did Republicans claim that Ronald Reagan was trying to create a cult of personality, as some did this time, when he spoke to students at the White House in 1988, near the end of his second term. Answering questions, Reagan boasted of economic progress and a patriotic revival under his administration. He also said he opposed rigid gun controls or handgun bans.

More politics there than in Obama’s school session. At a meeting with students before his speech, the president did tell a questioning youth that he favors universal health insurance and thinks it can be done. But he never mentioned his policy agenda in his speech.

President George W. Bush was at a Sarasota, Fla., school reading to pupils on Sept. 11, 2001. He was to have delivered a back-to-school talk there, but never did. The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington intervened.

Until now presidential school speeches hadn’t been treated as anything out of the ordinary. Obama’s wasn’t either, but right-wing activists saw an opportunity to hassle him and to stir up people who don’t like the president by inventing an issue.

This wasn’t really about the propriety of a president speaking at a school or about what he might say that parents claimed they had to guard their kids against. It was about opposing Obama. There’s nothing wrong with opposition. That’s the way politics works.

But the underlying tone of the most vehement critics goes past the traditions of politics to the idea that schoolchildren shouldn’t be listening to this guy because he shouldn’t be president.

The office, whoever the man in the White House, always has commanded respect. That is eroding in the era of nonstop talk shows and angry blogs.

It has been an American tradition for losing candidates in presidential elections to urge their followers to respect the outcome, to say that the winner is their president, too. Episodes like the school speech flap say something different.


Walter R. Mears covered government and politics for The Associated Press for more than 45 years. He is retired now and lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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