Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lesson Plan: How to Do Ugly

I’m no political historian, but from what I hear, when President George Herbert Walker Bush was planning to speak to schoolchildren in 1991, Democratic politicians called “foul.” They feared that the Republican president was trying to indoctrinate young minds with partisan ideas. Turns out Bush’s remarks were nothing of the sort. It was straight down the line “Work hard to get a good education” stuff.

But as innocent as the speech was, the Democratic politicians had reason to be suspicious, since when President Reagan, Bush’s former boss, was in office, he had also spoken to schoolchildren in 1986. And while President  Reagan’s speech was also harmless, it clearly included more than glancing mention of his governmental ideology. No harm done. He probably inspired the minds of today’s brightest (as well as not-so-bright) young conservatives.

So if Democrats and other progressives objected back in 1991, why didn’t their objections reach the levels of today’s? Why were there no calls for nationwide boycotts? Why were school boards not forbidding the speech? Why weren’t parents choosing to keep their kids home because the President of the United States wanted to speak to them? Why weren’t permission slips sent home to allow the President to urge kids to work hard in school?

Some folks like the tit-for-tat and see the two episodes as equal. They clearly are not. CNN commentators almost uniformly suggest that the difference is today’s “politically charged atmosphere.” They are not far from the truth, but their assessment begs the further question: What is charging the atmosphere? I’ll leave that question to open speculation.

But I will take a stab at my first questions. And I will surely alienate at least as many as I amuse, educate, or inspire with my theory. But it’s a chance I’ll take in an effort to spark some positive change. I think there are two reasons that this effort of a President to speak to schoolchildren is different from the effort in 1991.

The first reason is that narrow-minded Republicans and conservatives do ugly politics way better than narrow-minded Democrats and progressives. I say this meaning no disrespect to the noble efforts at ugliness from the leftists. They try. But they are no match for their rivals. If the progressives throw the first punch, the conservatives knock them out with the counter. If the cons act first the libs come back with an anemic response. It’s like their heart’s not really in it.

So in this example, Democratic politicians cry foul in 1991 and Republicans (both elected officials and unelected media leaders) Never Forget. So they up the ante with a thunderous “scare the parents, call the names, pressure the school boards and teachers, boycott the President” assault.

I say all of this without intending to attach moral superiority to either side. I’m no fan of ugly, especially when it comes with its own air of moral superiority. But on both sides (and to some degree in the middle) there are people who decide to operate out of ugliness. I’m just saying that when it comes to ugly, conservatives do it better.

But there is another reason that this time is different from 1991. It has to do with President Obama, the man in office, more than with his political philosophy, his policies, or his ideology. It has to do with other feelings people have about him. It has to do with denial of his legitimacy to the office of President of the United States. It has to do with something else lurking.

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