Flunk the Far Right

President Obama’s inspirational back-to-school message to students today is getting eviscerated by critics as a conspiracy to indoctrinate the nation's children. When the president can’t tell students to stay in school without causing an uproar, we’ve reached a new low.

09.07.09 11:00 PM ET

Good God almighty, Ernestine, hide the kids and cover their ears, the damn president wants to talk to 'em.

Do we need any more proof that partisanship has entered uncharted territory than the fact that an American president can’t give a simple inspirational speech to students about staying in school and working hard without having his motives, character, and politics questioned?

Imagine if we were talking about John Kennedy in the early ’60s. Or Dwight Eisenhower in the ’50s. You think there would have been a controversy?

Imagine if we were talking about John Kennedy in the early '60s. Or Dwight Eisenhower in the '50s. You think there would have been a controversy? Or imagine it was Ronald Reagan or George H.W. Bush. Well, actually we don’t have to imagine, because they actually did give similar back-to-school speeches.

Now, I don't believe this is just a far-right issue. Because let’s imagine if George W. Bush had proposed a speech to the students of America. And it’s not hard to imagine the riots that would have ensued with the far left. It would undoubtedly have made current controversy seem mild.

Here's the crux of the problem. Too often in today’s politics, we spend more time questioning our opponents' motivation than we do debating their policy.

So here’s the real question. Which scenario do you find more believable? A: David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel sat down and determined the only way to enshrine Barack Obama’s legacy forever would be to brainwash the children of America, and the best way to start that ball rolling would be for the president to deliver a speech in their classrooms. Or B: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan concluded the best way to motivate and inspire kids to work hard and stay in school on the first day of class would be to have the president of the United States talk to them directly at an assembly?

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Unfortunately, I know, because I hear from them myself, that a lot of people actually believe scenario A.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer said: “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.” This is same Jim Greer who spent time talking politics himself in classrooms, reportedly once telling a Hilary Clinton joke.

Columnist Michelle Malkin says “the activist tradition of government schools using students as junior lobbyists cannot be ignored.”

The reports: “The thing that concerned me most about it was it seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child,” said Brett Curtis, an engineer from Pearland, Texas, who said he would keep his three children home. “I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement.”

An Oklahoma Republican state senator on Rush Limbaugh’s show accused Obama of trying to create a cult of personality and compared him to Saddam Hussein and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. And a Kansas City radio talk-show host said, “I wouldn’t let my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I’m sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone.”

Alone? Unless his kid has a classroom to himself, hard to see how he’s going to be hostage to a solo Obama indoctrination session that happens to be broadcast to the rest of the country.

Even Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, angling toward a run for the 2012 GOP nomination, supposedly as a centrist, couldn’t resist jumping into the fray, presumably because he knew it would get attention from the media and the right wing of the party. Pawlenty said the speech raises questions of content and motive and is “uninvited”. Well, how many presidential speeches are invited? Not to mention that this one is voluntary. The administration made clear the speech will contain no policy and parents were able read the content of the speech online the day before the speech.

I read it. It runs 2,428 words. In keeping with Pawlenty’s concerns about “content” and his “motive” skepticism, let me summarize for you in 35: “Show up with a good attitude. Listen to your teachers and elders. Work hard. Figure out what you’re good at. Don’t drop out. You can do anything you set your mind to. God bless America.” What part of that is at all objectionable?

From a policy perspective, I don’t agree with everything Obama is doing on education. I was deeply disappointed when he got rolled by the teachers’ unions and let Congress phase out the Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarships program that allowed 1,700 poor children to attend private schools.

And unfortunately, in an early version of the proposed lesson plan to accompany the speech, the Department of Education suggested that students write letters to themselves saying “what they can do to help the president.” That wording was changed to suggest students write letters laying out how they can “achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals.” Now, some will see in this a deep conspiracy, but I worked in government long enough to recognize an innocent but bureaucratic bone-headed mistake that probably didn’t get appropriate review before it went out.

I don’t question the president’s motives. I assumed he just wanted to give a pep talk to America’s students. Plain and simple. And it’s a damn sad thing when something as innocent as a presidential speech to inspire the nation’s schoolchildren becomes the subject not of admiration and encouragement but derision and contempt.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.