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An A in Overreaction

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Just when you thought things couldn't get any stupider, schools across the nation decided to censor President Obama's speech urging kids to work hard because "being successful is hard."

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And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the terribly scary bit of propaganda that prompted certain Americans to cry "socialism" and "indoctrination" and force some schools to opt out of hearing the president's message Tuesday.

When and how did we become so ridiculous?

As it turns out, we've been this way for a while. Such protests -- a review of which follows shortly -- aren't new. The difference is that now the masses are technologically enabled, amplified by a twillion tweets. Everybody's got a megaphone, bless democracy's heart.

But when a protest of one (or a few) can instantly morph into a babble of thousands, rabble-rousing becomes a hobby -- and rational debate becomes an oxymoron.

Granting a super-sized benefit of the doubt to protesters, Obama's speech originally included classroom instructional materials from the Education Department that asked students to express how they were inspired by the president and how they might help him.

Too political, critics said. Indoctrination, charged Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer.

"As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology," Greer said.

Some conservative radio and television hosts latched onto the specter of youth camps past and encouraged parents to keep their children home from school in protest.

Okay, benefit-of-the-doubt rescinded. Even asking kids to help the president improve the nation doesn't justify charges of socialist indoctrination. John F. Kennedy's famous "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" is hardly considered a bugle call to summer camp in the Urals.

Essentially, Obama's speech, which aired live, focused on encouraging students to evaluate how they might contribute to making America better. "What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make?"

Anyone who heard or read the address will have found little to criticize, except perhaps that it was a tad boring, too long -- and certifiably schmaltzy. Then again, he was talking to kids, some of them as young as 5. Even former first lady Laura Bush and former House speaker Newt Gingrich approved of the president's talk.

Presidential speeches to students aren't new. The St. Petersburg Times's indispensable PolitiFact.com "Truth-O-Meter" notes that both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush gave such addresses while president. And, yes, Democrats protested. Reagan's speech was, in fact, political, as he went beyond stressing the importance of education to discuss nuclear disarmament, defense funding and even taxes. Talk about a snooze.

Gingrich, who at the time of Bush's address was House Republican whip, defended the president's right to speak directly to students. But Richard Gephardt, then the House Democratic leader, said the Education Department shouldn't be producing "paid political advertising for the president. . . . And the president should be doing more about education than saying, 'Lights, camera, action.' "

And round and round we go. The hysterics, it would seem, have reached a detente. Or, one hopes, canceled each other out. Compared to previous presidential addresses, Obama's was strictly apolitical. It was also quintessential Obama -- aimed at healing, at soothing the afflicted and making things all better. The speech was so brimming with pathos, it seemed to have been concocted around a campfire where kids recalled their worst day in school.

Addressing all ages of students, from kindergartners to 12th-graders, presents challenges, but Obama managed to hit every group's vulnerabilities and insecurities -- from being bullied, to not fitting in, to having a divided family. Hey, he's been there!

And now he's president. You can be, too, was the subtext. What's so wrong with that?

One might have wished Obama's remarks cut by half. It also would have been nice if he had thrown in an Ashley or a Jonah among the students he featured -- Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell. But overall, the president's message was a conservative hymn, a GOP platform for kiddies: Take personal responsibility, don't blame others for your failures, listen to your parents and your teachers, work hard.

"Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future."

The only thing missing from this orgy of conservative orthodoxy was . . . a Republican president. And that is the lesson of the day.


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