Saturday, September 12, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Listening to the president

The great presidential brainwashing has come and gone and we are left to contemplate whether it will produce a nation of automatons waiting on the state to take care of them, as Republicans and even some school leaders said was President Obama’s goal.

As anyone who took the ample trouble of watching or reading the president’s talk to schoolchildren knows, it is a nonsensical question. It was a nonsensical fear to begin with. All the anguished cries about socialist brainwashing suddenly stopped when the White House released the text of the speech in advance to try to stem the spreading anxieties of parents. It is unseemly that he needed to do it.

The president’s message, every word of it, was what every last American parent, conservative or liberal, black or white, wants his or her children to hear and absorb, although we are sure some parents do not want them to hear it from a black man.

The message was that each of you is responsible for your life and your success or lack of it. You do not have any excuses — not race, parentage or poverty. You can make of your life whatever you want, but it’s up to you. So starting right now you need to study and work hard, and stay away from drugs and other temptations. And do not take one failure or even a succession of failures as final, but keep striving.

They were the same unexceptionable ideas that President George H. W. Bush tried to impart in a similar speech to the nation’s school kids in 1991, although Obama’s almost certainly had a greater impact on children. Bush I was as earnest as Obama but, bless his heart, his gifts were not in moving people to believe and act. Barack Obama’s are, although they have not been much on display in recent months in the great health-care brouhaha.

Coming from a man of color, of mixed parentage and of hard upbringing, his message has uncommon relevance, especially for the millions of children whom we’ve come to describe as “disadvantaged” and who make up a huge quotient of the failure of American schools, especially ours in poor Arkansas. We had thought that the highest advantage of Barack Obama’s election was its unmistakable lesson to children everywhere that your race, your heritage, your parents, your neighborhood or any other circumstance are mere excuses. Children have unusual obstacles to overcome, but they will fall to striving, intelligence and will.

So we were eager for the president to do exactly what he did. Too many kids need an antidote to the pessimism and hopelessness of their circumstances. They don’t get it at home, on the streets or from their peers. How much the president’s eloquent lecture helped we can only hope.

The furor over the speech, stirred by a desperate political party, is the disheartening thing. They said it was unconscionable for a president to “indoctrinate” children in his alien philosophy and many school officials barred the speech in their classrooms and parents took their kids out of school that day.

No one protested when Bush I set out to do it in 1991 or Ronald Reagan in his final days in office in the fall of 1988. Yes, some Democrats protested Bush’s speech after the fact because they thought it had been staged through C-Span viewing not for the children but for its impact on the public at large in advance of the election. The protest was foolish then. Reagan’s speech to the kids was, indeed, political — he said youngsters should stand up for America’s enduring values, which he said were low taxes, capitalism, weak government regulation and removing American barriers to products from other nations. He wanted America’s kids to join a tax revolt. But no one complained.

The richest irony of the week was that the superintendent of schools at Arlington, Texas, barred Obama’s little classroom chat in his schools but emptied the classrooms for a day so that children could attend a speech by former President George W. Bush at Cowboys stadium. Bush was fond of staging classroom settings with children in his eight years. He did several in Arkansas. His wife, Laura, incidentally, praised Obama’s speech.

Why were they so scared? He would spread socialist propaganda, said the Florida Republican chairman, echoing the right-wing TV and radio commentators. We confess that we still don’t know the basis of the alarums about socialism this summer. We have never heard or read where Obama wanted the government to control the means of production in the United States.

Oh, but what about the government bailout of financial institutions and two U. S. automakers and the government’s taking an equity stake in them? Isn’t that creeping socialism?

Those are probably the basis of so much angst. Most Americans, especially anti-corporate Democrats, didn’t like bailing out the fatcats. But it was not Obama but George W. Bush and his treasury secretary who called for and passed the $700 billion bailout of the banks and AIG in September 2008. The congressional leadership of both parties went along, fearful that the loathsome step might be necessary to avoid a global financial crash. It was the Bush administration, in December 2008, that gave General Motors and Chrysler their first $17 billion from the treasury.

If there is a modern-day Eugene Debs, it’s George W. Bush. He doesn’t deserve the label either, although for entirely different reasons we think kids’ minds are just a little safer in the presence of Barack Obama.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.