By Joe Conason
The wild furor over President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation’s schoolchildren raises many questions, but there is only one that really matters. How did America surrender its political discourse—not to mention the news cycle—to the most unreasonable and unstable elements of the far right?
Not so many years ago, nobody would have imagined that a bland presidential address to young students, urging them to remain in school, study hard and nurture their aspirations for success, could engender a raging national controversy. Nobody would have believed that such an ordinary event could excite suspicions among a significant part of the population that the chief executive is “indoctrinating” their children in a “socialist ideology,” or that the fate of the republic depended on parents keeping their innocents away from the classrooms, lest they hear his words. And nobody would have believed that the resulting wave of paranoia, supercharged by talk radio and cable television, could actually grip the attention of the public at a time when real issues demand action.
When the nation’s first African-American president proposes to urge children, and in particular those children who regard him as a role model, to behave wisely and avoid self-destructive behavior, liberals and conservatives alike ought to be expected to applaud him. Indeed, conservatives especially should be clapping loudly, since they have so often bemoaned the cultural barriers to advancement faced by poor and minority students.
So why have the idols of the right, notably Glenn Beck of Fox News Channel, instead seized this moment to stir anger and fear among Republican parents by claiming that the president intends harm to their kids? Why did many Republican leaders, notably the party chairman of Florida, echo the craziness? (And why would any parent take advice from Beck, a college dropout and recovering alcoholic?)
While many Obama critics advertise themselves as “libertarians” who distrust any message from Big Brother in Washington, that healthy skepticism cannot be the reason for the current outcry—because two of the past three Republican presidents spoke directly to the nation’s schoolchildren without provoking any significant reaction at all.
“Thanks for allowing me to visit your classroom to talk to you and all these students,” the first President Bush said politely to the teacher who was hosting him, “and millions more in classrooms all across the country.” He went on to tell his audience: “Make your teachers work hard. Tell them you want a first-class education. Tell them that you’re here to learn. Block out the kids who think it’s not cool to be smart. I can’t understand for the life of me what’s so great about being stupid.”
His predecessor, Ronald Reagan, addressed students directly on at least two occasions—once in a broadcast speech in 1988 and once in a session with high school students at the White House in 1986. Both times, the Gipper seized the chance to promote his own policies, with particular attention to cutting taxes and his “vision of economic freedom.” In fact, Reagan’s remarks were entirely political, if not partisan. He did precisely what the right has wrongly accused Obama of doing—but that was a message that conservatives like to hear, so they didn’t object to the “indoctrination” of students at the public’s expense.
The irony of this tempest of idiocy is that the same blowhards who constantly slander and slur President Obama were telling us, not too long ago, that criticizing the commander in chief during wartime was tantamount to treason. But of course they are patriots of political convenience—with no allegiance to anything except their own power and their extreme ideology.
Joe Conason writes for The New York Observer.