How She Talks

Teaching the Teachers

By Dana Milbank
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, opted to skip the applause lines after she accepted an endorsement last week from a New Hampshire teachers' union. Instead, she plunged deep into the weeds.

"We have one form of learning, which is pretty much an auditory form of learning supplemented by some visual aids," she announced. "We are leaving out . . . kinesthetic and esthetic learners."

Further, she reported that "60 percent of our in-age cohort will not graduate from college" and that "a child drops out of school in America every 29 seconds."

She blamed Bush education policy, which "homogenizes the classes," and pledged to help "individual districts and states achieve a level of facility and teacher preparedness and adequacy."

Let's hear it for facility preparedness and adequacy! Put your hands together for kinesthetic learning and the de-homogenization of the classroom! Save the in-age cohort!

The audience sat quietly through this, applauding in the appropriate places. They gave Clinton a seated ovation when she finished, rising only to put on their coats.

For a quarter-century now, Democrats have had a habit of selecting brainy, establishment presidential nominees who are frequently pedantic but rarely passionate. Al Gore and John Kerry were bookish, and Michael Dukakis didn't even show emotion when asked about the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife.

The lone exception was Hillary Clinton's husband -- and it's no coincidence that he has been the only successful Democratic presidential candidate in three decades. But Hillary lacks Bill's presence on the stump; hers is a message of leadership by laundry list.

"I also created the Healthy, High-Performance School programs," she told the teachers. And, "We worked hard to create a program for 100,000 federally funded teachers." And, "I proposed . . . the National Teacher Corps." And, "I've joined up with several of my colleagues to propose renovating and rebuilding crumbling schools."

In her typical stump speech, Clinton does have some crowd-pleasing lines, pronouncing that "the era of cowboy diplomacy is over." She also tosses in the Democratic favorites: creating universal health care, ending the Iraq war, fighting outsourcing.

But in just about every performance on the hustings, Clinton devotes the largest chunk to education. ("We're going to increase the value of the Pell grant!")

If the recitation of her policy expertise weren't proof enough, she makes it explicit: Her "35 years of experience" make her "the best-qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running."

She certainly is the most methodical. In New Hampshire, an aide taped arrows on the stage to show Clinton and the teachers where to stand. Clinton placed a text on the lectern but hardly consulted it as she delivered in perfect sentences a speech following the conventional formula: a joke at the beginning, an anecdote at the end, and a few platitudes and panders in between. "I pledge to you that I will do everything I can to be a president who will be a good partner for you -- educators need partners," she intoned.

Most prominent, though, was the laundry list. "I helped to start Early Head Start. . . . We worked hard on after-school programs. . . . I also helped to work on having federal funds for school construction. . . . I've also worked to have proposals passed to improve math and science education." And on, and on. Just in case that didn't convince, her aides distributed a fact sheet with more ("a $100 million public/private internship initiative").

It was a long list, and at the end, Clinton downed a glass of water without stopping for air. "I want to thank you for taking the time to educate me in even greater depth," she told the teachers. Impossible: Nobody knows more than Hillary.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company