On few issues have those who have taken issue with the points we have made stood on as solid ground as have these critics on the issue of the President’s speech to schoolchildren yesterday. Indeed, despite the outcry on the right, many of our philosophical confrères shared our critics sentiments and thought the speech was “no big deal.”
Under normal circumstances, we should welcome the head of state of the United States of America encouraging children to work hard in school and to aspire to great things. (And many on the right found much to praise in the President’s address.)
Alas, that too many of those critics refused to understand our genuine concerns about the potential politicization of the address, especially given the study guides prepared by the Department of Education. It seems they reacted in a bitter and hateful kneejerk manner to our criticisms, as if everything we say must be discounted and every criticism we level against the President must be rooted in animus.
So, I wonder if those who reacted in such an unthinking manner to our criticism under stood some conservatives were doing exactly what Democrats did when then-President George H.W. Bush delivered a similar address to schoolchildren in 1991. Not only did Democrats denounced the Republican Chief Executive they even held hearings:
Rep. William Ford, then chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, ordered the General Accounting Office to investigate the cost and legality of Bush’s appearance. On October 17, 1991, Ford summoned then-Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and other top Bush administration officials to testify at a hearing devoted to the speech. “The hearing this morning is to really examine the expenditure of $26,750 of the Department of Education funds to produce and televise an appearance by President Bush at Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, DC,” Ford began. “As the chairman of the committee charged with the authorization and implementation of education programs, I am very much interested in the justification, rationale for giving the White House scarce education funds to produce a media event.”
I do hope our critics will fault Democrats for their knee-jerk reaction to the then-President’s address and promise not to criticize any future Republican President who takes to the airwaves for similar purposes.
All that said, I’ve read the speech and think it’s a good one, one of the President’s best. I think his press office blundered badly in promoting it and would have done well to have nixed any ideas of an accompanying study guide/talking points. When do you need talking points to explain an inspirational message.
While I think it’s one of the President’s best speeches, I don’t share former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s view that “every child in America” should read and think about this speech. Mr. Obama would have done well to put the self-referential passages in historical context. Toward the end, he said:
The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.
Yet, he offered no examples from American history. Perhaps, he could have cited Valley Forge or other challenges George Washington faced in the many dark hours he faced during the Revolution or the efforts Abraham Lincoln made to educate himself. Or Teddy Roosevelt’s fight to overcome asthma and his determination to work hard and succeed.
He might thus have encouraged children to take our nation’s history more seriously and see its relevance to their own lives. This President references our nation’s pre-World War II past all too rarely, if at all.
So, we shouldn’t be troubled if the President delivers such speeches to schoolchildren on a regular basis, provided his Administration need not issue talking points in tandem with the address. And it would be nice if he made a greater effort to reference American history in this address. And when a Republican returns to the White House, Democrats should not follow the example of their fellow partisans in the 102nd Congress and react in a kneejark manner to the President’s address.
ADDENDUM: Ed Morrissey gets at the nub of conservative criticism of the speech:
Frst, there’s a question of incompetence in this study guide. Who produces a study guide for a document or lesson that has yet to be created? Had the White House included the speech with the study guide, a lot of the criticism could have been avoided right from the beginning. It took six days for the White House to produce the speech after releasing the study guide and creating the firestorm of criticism. Help the President do what, exactly? Without the speech, who knew?
Read the whole thing.
UPDATE: “Creepy collectivism“? Jacob Sullum kinda sorta has a point, but would not have had Obama included some nonpersonal historical references.