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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Suzanne Fields

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Suzanne Fields

Last Build Date: Fri, 10 Apr 2009 00:20:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Mom in Chief as Marie Antoinette

Fri, 10 Apr 2009 00:20:00 -0600

When she and the president catch up on what they missed in Washington, they should read the latest performance evaluation of the Opportunity Scholarship Program, a school voucher program in their new hometown. It should be of particular interest to a mom who gives the education of children, her own and others, pride of place at the top of the agenda.

Seventeen hundred Washington children attend private school with vouchers under this scholarship program, and two of them attend Sidwell Friends School with the Obama girls. Unlike most programs and schemes in the nation's capital, this program has human faces -- all of them children's -- and the evaluation report will influence education policy across the country.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program is small stuff in Washington, where trillions of dollars are thrown around like Frisbees, but the program drew national notice because a few sentences and paragraphs were tucked into the stimulus bill to abolish the program. Congressmen and figures in the new administration, who like the Obamas wouldn't dream of sending their kids to a public school in Washington, cheerfully killed a program for families not as fortunate as themselves. All in the name of high principle, of course.

The president and the Democrats say they killed it because there was no proof that it worked. But now there is. The evaluators found that scholarship students scored specific gains in reading -- by a half grade. That's no small increase. Math scores remained steady, and the scores suggest that further gains will follow as the students from deprived neighborhoods acclimate themselves to the more rigorous discipline of private schools. This is the change that hundreds of parents are eager to believe in.

"There are transition difficulties, a culture shock, on entering a school where you're expected to pay attention, learn, do homework," Jay Green, an education scholar at the Manhattan Institute, told The Wall Street Journal. "These results fit a pattern that we've seen in other evaluations of vouchers. Benefits compound over time."

Ninety-nine percent of the low-income students who have transferred from deprived neighborhoods are black and Hispanic. A long waiting list, with four applicants vying for each scholarship, testifies to the demand for the program. The $7,500 voucher is equal to slightly more than half of what the District government spends per student in the District's dreadful public schools. Despite the $14,000 the District spends per pupil in its public schools -- highest in the nation -- the District achievement scores are among the lowest in the country.

Vouchers are key to education reform, along with more charter schools, knowledge tests and merit pay for teachers. But the powerful teachers unions, the ventriloquists behind the congressional dummies on their laps, naturally oppose reforms that would impose accountability. The worst teachers know their weaknesses, and the protection of mediocrity becomes the first order of business for the teachers unions.

President Obama promised that he would support "what works for the kids," and now he has the proof that this specific program works. In addition to the statistical evidence, there's the reassurance, hard to measure but abundantly clear, for parents and their children to feel secure and safe in the program. The program takes them out of schools where learning is not often prized and where physical safety is often at risk.

No one begrudges the president and the first lady their choice of a good school for their children. They can easily pay for whatever they choose. But if Michelle, as the nation's mom in chief, keeps her silence as others kill a program enabling choice for those who can't easily pay, she invokes the ghost of Marie Antoinette -- the kids cry for the bread of knowledge; let them eat stale cake. They need more than a hug.

Cultivating Her Own Garden

Fri, 03 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Michelle has planted vegetables on the south lawn of the White House, just like Eleanor Roosevelt's World War II victory garden -- and unlike Eleanor, she hasn't been accused of meddling in policy, not yet. She has overcome some of the suspicion and hostility she stirred during the campaign, particularly after she said that "for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country." If Michelle Obama is a work in progress, so are the Americans always eager to take the measure of a new first lady. Her poll numbers have risen and her negatives have declined since they were first measured last summer. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows her favorable ratings jumping to 76 percent, up 28 points since summer. Negatives have fallen, mostly because some Republicans have changed their opinion of her. Some conservatives say they like the way she's serious about being "Mom in chief," expanding a role that includes concern for the travails of military families. She doesn't just talk about the importance of volunteer work, either, but handles the ladle at soup kitchens. She values private spending. The Obamas are redecorating the domestic quarters at the White House with their own money, though the first family is entitled to spend $100,000 to freshen up the living quarters every four years. (When they leave they'll be entitled to the furniture, unlike the Clintons, who mixed up some of their own belongings with things that didn't belong to them when they left the White House.) She knows it's not the right time to tap taxpayers to decorate a perfectly good house while so many Americans are losing their homes. Smart thinking. While Michelle's poll numbers climb, her husband's are just beginning to falter. Nearly half of those who don't like what he's doing in his job like what she's doing in hers. Curiously, it's our metrosexual men who prudishly titter about Michelle's clothes. Maureen Dowd plumbs the newsroom at The New York Times to learn what America is thinking and quotes her colleague David Brooks that it's time for the first lady to put away her sleeveless tops and "cover up." Says Brooks: "She's made her point. Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning." Does a muscular woman threaten male pundits? Grandma Grundy, who in Victorian times demanded skirts for the legs of the piano, has given way to Grandpa Grumpy, who doesn't like bare arms. But fitness is about health, too: With 38 percent of black American women and 23 percent of white American women overweight and vulnerable to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, Michelle is an example of healthy living. "First lady" is the most vaguely defined job description in Washington. Jackie Kennedy scoffed that "first lady" sounded like the name of a saddle horse. Her husband agreed: "A man marries a woman, not a first lady." There's the rub. He runs for office, and she's compelled to go along for the ride, like it or not. From Martha to Michelle, first ladies have been adored and abhorred and every permutation between, judged first for their fashion sense. Martha Washington dressed simply and plainly only in dresses made in America of American fabrics, boosting local markets. No outsourcing at Mount Vernon. Martha knew what Michelle knows, that what she wears influences what other women buy. Michelle Obama follows one of the most popular first ladies. Laura Bush fused the feminine and the feminist, the mother and the librarian, stressing the importance of books for young children. She didn't have the political baggage of her predecessor, whose stormy marriage was soap opera writ large and whose personality was "in your face," whether dealing with Whitewater, "wifewater" or Hillarycare. Michelle as first lady sends a different message, whether to poor and oft-neglected children here, or to the masses in London and Europe, where she is this week with her husband, inspiring by building on th[...]

Obama's Indelicate Exposure

Fri, 27 Mar 2009 00:30:00 -0600

Obama goes out of his way to seek a celebrity's attention, and he's still in his first hundred days. When he makes an off-hand jest about his bowling score and the Special Olympics -- the sort of tasteless attempt at dark humor that anyone might make within a tight circle of good friends -- the whole world hears it, and the pundits can't wait to leap. We should all "lighten up," but if a president can't resist going on television to banter with a comedian, he ought to leave the comedy to the comedian, who gets paid for sarcasm and irony.

It's a shame that the eye of the camera tempts presidents to try to be the entertainer in chief. Michelle might emulate Bess Truman after Harry couldn't resist playing the piano with Lauren Bacall in fetching repose atop the upright. Mr. Truman, on a night out at the National Press Club, was only doing what any red-blooded man might, but Bess was not amused. She told him it simply wasn't dignified, that he was definitely not to "play it again, Harry."

Dignity, of course, isn't what it used to be. Indeed, the concept seems faintly quaint in an era when almost anything goes. As comfortable as the president may look on the CBS show "60 Minutes," with Jay Leno or in a primetime press conference, he's spending valuable emotional and intellectual capital with the relentless exposure in the modern media. Confident and cool, he's nevertheless beginning to look a lot like a man afflicted with the hubris of show biz.

Since the campaign ended, the stakes have changed. He has yet to understand the lesson learned by Steven Chu, his secretary of energy. Asked what he likes least about his new job, he replied: "The fact that I'm constantly being told that I have to be careful what I say to the press and in public. I can't speculate out loud anymore. Everything I say is taken with total seriousness."

Even laughter can be suspect. Steve Croft, the president's interviewer on "60 Minutes," suggested the president might be "punch drunk" when he chuckled aloud in discussing the crash of the economy. "Gallows humor," the president later called it. But that doesn't work for a president, whether hot or cool. Most of us didn't expect Bill Clinton to feel our pain, and we don't expect Barack Obama to laugh at it.

None of this will matter much if, as he suggested it would in his press conference this week, the economic crisis soon eases. He'll get the credit, and that's how it should be. But there should be a bright line between behaving as the commander in chief and entertaining as a celebrity in chief.

The history of Washington and Hollywood eager to trade places is a long one. Politicians and entertainers imagine themselves as stars in the same galaxy. Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart campaigned for FDR, to the dismay of studio executives (that, too, seems quaint today). JFK enjoyed the company of Marilyn Monroe and was pals with Frank Sinatra (who later liked to hang out with the Reagans). Barbra Streisand sometimes slept at the White House (in the Lincoln Bedroom, of course) during the Clinton years.

Said Gerald Ford, in another context, "If Lincoln were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave." Lauren Bacall understood the "natural attraction" between Washington and Hollywood. "They have access to real power, and we sing, dance and act."

The modern president crosses that bright line between statecraft and stagecraft at his peril. Obama would do well to remember that statecraft is what we elected him to manage. He should leave the barbs and yuks to the professionals.

Red Meat for Dinner

Fri, 20 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

This was not the Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity crowd; there would be no knock 'em, sock 'em, beat 'em rhetoric. The audience expected something "thoughty," a speech from a conservative intellectual accustomed to looking at the big picture. Tonight's speaker was Charles Murray, whose ideas give liberals indigestion and usually spark intelligent debate that eventually spills over into public policy. His book, "Losing Ground," published a quarter of a century ago, demonstrated how many government social programs, for all their good intentions, contributed to the destruction of social networks for poor black families. His data and analysis were the impetus for the welfare reform legislation that Bill Clinton, reluctant or not, signed into law. While Murray fretted that his subject, the nature of happiness, sounded abstract, he knew an audience upset over President Obama's unfolding domestic agenda would find it "relevant" when put in the form of a succinct question: "Do we want the United States to be like Europe?" The question was not about the cozy ambiance of the cafes of Paris, the beer gardens of Munich or the tapas bars of Barcelona; he's known to partake of the delights that make everyday life in Paris and Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome easy to love. But the Europe of familiar song and story will disappear in the lifetimes of those now small children if present trends continue. Europeans suffer catastrophically low birthrates, as if the pleasures of daily life are not wonderful enough to pass on to the succeeding generations. The price of the long vacations, extended maternity leaves, generous child allowances and good daycare of the modern welfare state will be collected soon enough, and will be steep indeed. Government policies have led Europeans to discount the "transcendent meaning" that Western civilization has given to human life. "If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life," he says, "the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation and faith." Almost anything government does impinges on these institutions, and while social policy in Europe legislates to make life happier, it fosters a narcissism that undercuts those institutions. And here's the crux of his argument: Barack Obama's intellectual heroes, political theorists and policymakers are the American equivalent of Europe's social democrats. They want the government to take over ever more of our lives, to remake America in the mould of Europe, with all its attendant unhappy consequences. "Happiness" can sound esoteric and distant in the midst of a recession that threatens to make all our lives less than happy. It's precisely this "crisis" that tempts us to embrace the example of Europe without facing up to the future costs, psychological and financial, of government spending and bureaucratic regulation and control. Marriage rates are plunging in Europe, and Europeans are not replacing themselves. Longer vacations take priority over job satisfaction, work is a "necessary evil" that intrudes on leisure, and the ancient churches are crowded with tourists who are there only to admire the architecture, not to worship. Government policy can't be blamed for it all, but it's impossible to ignore government and the flabby intellectual concepts driving unintended change. Government is by far the strongest influence on the European "mindset." This even goes to the heart of Europe's military impotence: "If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible," Murray asks, "what can be worth dying for?" America's sense of itself comes from the "cultural capital" of its democratic institutions that at their best prize individual opportunity and satisfaction over equality of outcome, enabling the individual to take control of his own destiny and to accept the consequenc[...]

Women's Work Is Never Done

Fri, 13 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

In America, she represents the swiftly changing roles of women. Barbie's fun to tease, but she's as American as miniskirts and pantsuits in her flexible identities and her "growth" from sexpot to astronaut. Some of her critics say she's still a bad influence because she's too skinny and encourages anorexia, that she has run through too many "feminine" or "feminist" stereotypes, that she lends too much significance to the fantasy stages of child's play. But Barbie in the Muslim world lives no fantasy. The prosecutor general of Iran warns that Barbie is merely the moll of Batman, Spider-Man and Harry Potter in the "invasion" from the West.

In her memoir, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," Azar Nafisi tells how after the Islamist Revolution in Iran women were no longer allowed to freely express themselves in clothes or speech; even their understanding of great literature was inhibited. "They have never been told they are good or can think independently," says a university professor in Tehran, explaining the poor performance of women on tests measuring their comprehension of subject matter. The author, who meets with a small group of bright young college girls in a clandestine class in her private apartment, encourages them to throw off their dark robes and headscarves for a transformation to the Barbie look of colorful t-shirts, jeans and bright red nail polish.

But as they begin to talk freely about the meaning of Nabokov, Henry James, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, the teacher must stand constant guard. Repression has narrowed women's ability to make both moral and aesthetic judgments.

Women in the democracies of the West are the most privileged in the world, and sometimes it's easy to be unaware of how those less fortunate suffer in ways both large and small. When women in the Third World say, "Women's work is never done," they're not talking about keeping a neat house. By the reckoning of statistics gathered by International Women's Day 2009, women in undeveloped countries must typically carry home 10 gallons of water every day, often in buckets balanced precariously on their heads, for four miles or more.

International Women's Day began as a communist holiday to liberate women to do the work of a man. A popular 1932 Soviet poster, depicting women escaping the drudgery of the home, declared, "Down with the oppression and the narrow-mindedness of household work!" (Then it was on to cement-mixing and road-building.)

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, the holiday was transformed in many countries into a kind of Valentine's Day, where gents were expected to bring gifts and flowers to the ladies. Barbie, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, inspired a doll-revolution movement. When a Teen Talk Barbie was programmed electronically to say, "Math class is tough," she was regarded as a bad stereotype. Guerrillas of the Barbie Liberation Organization (B.L.O.) stole microchips from G.I. Joe, a popular toy for boys, and gave Barbie a chip transplant. The liberated Barbies across toyland soon cried, "Vengeance is mine."

That would have frosted the beards of every mullah in Riyadh. The Saudi Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, something of an Islamic Nice Squad always on the lookout for moral offenses, decreed that Barbie is a symbol of decadence and perversion. She was also said to be Jewish, naturally, and now Barbie is big on black markets across the Middle East.

President Obama saluted International Women's Day this week, saying that "women are vital to the solutions" for global warming, poverty and conflict. That's a tall order, assuring that women's work will truly never be done. We've come a long way, baby, with a long way to go.

Slings and Arrows on the Way

Fri, 06 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The new quarterback is calling the signals, and he'll have to face the consequences of the execution of the game plan -- if not now, soon. The tanking stock market is already his responsibility, and soon he'll face the music for how the nation's enemies react to withdrawal from Iraq, for a belated surge in Afghanistan and the rising number of casualties there. If health care reforms only succeed in making our medicine more like Europe's, thinning the care and surrendering the edge in medical research for new cures and treatments, he'll eventually get the blame for that, too. How will the top medical schools train top people if the profession becomes one of mechanics and technicians presided over by government bureaucrats? If everything goes right, he'll get the credit for that, too, and Obama is trying to act on the assumption of confidence -- what his grandfather told him he could learn from his father: "Confidence. The secret to a man's success." But confidence can be a trick of a con man, too, and if we become the easy marks, pulled in because we want to believe even when we know better, we'll get only what we deserve. With political comparisons exhausted -- Lincoln and Roosevelt deserve to rest in occasional peace -- we can look to the examples of literature that measure men, for better or worse. "Obama is precisely like Hamlet in his conviction that his eloquence proves his leadership ability and his self-knowledge," writes Sam Schulman in The Weekly Standard. "And like Hamlet's, his preparation for high office consisted of playacting, speechmaking and self-examination." You can read for yourself the self-revealing chapter the president wrote about his community organizing in Chicago. When he realizes that he has failed to achieve results, he goes off to Harvard Law School to fill in the gaps of his knowledge. "I would learn about the way businesses and banks were put together; how real estate ventures succeeded or failed," he writes. "I would learn power's currency in all its intricacy and detail." So now he takes tutelage from Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, and Timothy Geithner, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The president may still think of himself as a learner, albeit armed with "power's currency," but his teachers have become as courtiers to please rather than challenge, as effectual as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. How else to explain such mammoth excesses in his new budget? Hamlet, of course, was never "called to govern." The prince was too young, too inexperienced to assume power. Endless vacillation was his undoing. Had he become an authentic leader, the Danes would have wished him well, just as Americans want Barack Obama to do well. "Every American loves this country and wants it to succeed," the president says. But a lot of us think he's really not very interested in bridging the gap of partisanship, despite the pretty speeches. A small but dramatic example illustrates: Sarah and James Parker attend Sidwell Friends School in Washington with the Obama girls. But unlike Malia and Sasha, whose tuition is paid by their parents, they're part of a tiny District of Columbia voucher program that enables them, along with 1,700 other low-income children, to take $7,500 of public school money to a private school of their choice. The House adopted an amendment to a spending bill last week to eliminate this program, forcing these 1,700 children back to inferior public schools. The Senate could forestall this, by requiring the program be studied for its effectiveness. Obama says he supports charter schools, not vouchers for private schools. Authentic bipartisanship could defend the voucher program, but the teachers' unions, to whom the president and his party owe their jobs, are determined to protec[...]

Royalty Ain't What It Used to Be

Fri, 27 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

But choosing homecoming queens has never been an exercise in equity. Life is not always fair on campus, either. Many a queen was chosen because she was the girlfriend of the quarterback. Beauty counted more than grades. The Chi Omega girls had a lock on the crown when I was a student at George Washington University simply because they were blonde and beautiful. But even then, diversity was calling, and the administration was forced to give the student body the vote. I was "the sweetheart of Phi Alpha," a Jewish fraternity, and my boyfriend persuaded his fraternity brothers to nominate me for homecoming queen. I was the diversity token of my day. I was also a very long shot. I was an exile from the University of Wisconsin, a radical campus that even boasted of a campus chapter of the Communist Party. I wore my hair long and uncoiffed, no make up and affected black turtleneck sweaters in class, adopting the pose of a beatnik who could cite the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. When I wasn't hanging out at the library, I was in the Student Union drinking coffee with the foreign exchange students, often with Indians from Bombay before it was Mumbai, arguing about the status of Kashmir and deploring the evil V.K. Krishna Menon, the fiercely anti-American ambassador of India to the United Nations. Phi Alpha and I hardly suggested a winning combination. I was never a cheerleader, and Phi Alpha had more men on the dean's list than on the football squad. But mine was the first year of elected queens (an interesting oxymoron), and nobody knew what to expect. After each girl's required interview with three professors, the students would choose from among five candidates, all female. As an English major, I impressed the professors with my campaign plank of freedom of speech, quoting both John Milton and John Stuart Mill. Then it was enough of the egghead stuff. My brother Stanley took over. He was not only a law student at GWU, but president of the campus Young Democrats, who later would become a strategist for Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the vice president and then the Democratic presidential nominee in 1968. Stanley ran my campaign as if I were a candidate for Congress, putting together a bizarre coalition of Jews, foreign students, beatniks, Phi Beta Kappa scholars, members of the dean's list and political liberals. I never knew what anybody besides me expected to get from a victory, except a little psychic payback. Chi O never knew what hit them. Queen Suzanne was revealed as winner at halftime of the homecoming game. I circled the field, sitting regally at the back of an open convertible, waving to the cheers of the crowd. My mother, sitting with my father on the 40-yard line, kept crying out: "That's my daughter! That's my daughter!" Finally, a man a few seats away silenced her with a shout, "Bully for you!" I don't remember who we played or whether we won or lost, but the famous sportswriter Grantland Rice said it best: "It matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game." Those were more innocent times, and if my mother were still with us she wouldn't understand how a man could become homecoming queen at George Mason or anywhere else, in drag or otherwise. But diversity dominates campus royalty now. At Hood College, a lesbian was elected homecoming king, beating three men. Some universities have abandoned homecoming queens altogether because noticing that girls are beautiful in evening gowns is considered "sexist." A pregnant girl was elected queen at a high school in Minnesota, and she was disqualified -- some students said the principal's office cooked the vote. A girl with Down syndrome was elected homecoming queen at a high school in Texas, recognized as "beautiful in a nontraditional way." Now that royalty can be electe[...]

Obama Meets the Real Hamilton

Fri, 20 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

He's a founding father who might have been president even though he was foreign born -- "the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar," in the derisive description of John Adams. He was considered a "citizen" of the new United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. But he had many political enemies. Thomas Jefferson derided him, unfairly, as a secret "monarchist." Martha Washington called her tomcat "Hamilton" to mock his scandalous sexual appetite. Despite all that, and the vicious thrust and parry of his Republican opponents, Hamilton is nevertheless one of our most important original political thinkers, and he sounds like just what we need to lead us out of the contemporary economic crisis. Although Hamilton's reputation suffered in the long shadow of Thomas Jefferson, liberal and conservative alike now agree that revisiting his words of wisdom would benefit us all. I packed up a small library of revisionist interpretations of the first secretary of the treasury, including Ron Chernow's wonderful biography, to read for reflection in St. Martin while back in Washington the politicians are huddling to give away taxpayer money in ways that would have surely appalled him. Hamilton understood that money collected by the government is the people's money and should be spent responsibly, with appeals to reason, not as gratification for ambitious spendthrift legislators. A responsible government inspires confidence, and doesn't provoke suspicion and fear. A responsible government aims to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit, and its decisions tend to send the stock market up, not down. Government debt, Hamilton said, was tolerable to pay for necessary wars, and debt can be run up carefully when the economy falls into trouble and expanded for the infrastructure repairs with specific "internal improvements" for the common good. He reckoned nationalizing the Revolutionary War debt was legitimate because the states of the new federal government had incurred the costs against a common enemy and held a mutual interest in encouraging investment in an industrial economy. Whereas Jefferson saw America's future as an agrarian nation in the direction of landowners, Hamilton reckoned industrial prosperity as the key to a prosperous future. He had no reluctance to give private banks power as long as the bankers made sure that their loans were granted to borrowers whose personal integrity was matched by smart business plans. They had to be capable of paying back the money. (No Barney Frank escapades with Fannie and Freddie allowed.) Such common sense evaporated over the past decade -- careless banking and foolish granting of loans, it seems clear now, is what led us to the present predicament. Idealism exploited by greed begot a deadly result. Barack Obama invoked Alexander Hamilton and his economic genius at Cooper Union in New York City in a campaign stop last year. "The great task before our founders was putting into practice the ideal that government could simultaneously serve liberty and advance the common good," he said. "For Alexander Hamilton, the young secretary of the treasury, that task was bound to the vigor of the American economy. Hamilton had a strong belief in the power of the market, but he balanced that belief with a conviction that human enterprise 'may be beneficially stimulated by prudent aids and encouragement on the part of the government.'" The key word here is "prudent," a cautious reserve absent from the recent big banking, and specifically from the president's stimulus bill. A year ago, Barack Obama as campaigner recognized that special interests had put their thumb on the scale so that government rewarded "financial manipulation instead of productivity." Subprime mortgage lending became reckless a[...]

Waking from the Dream

Fri, 13 Feb 2009 00:30:00 -0600

His kind words for Republicans have become the scolding of an affronted president, the offered hand a partisan fist. He had picked Republicans for his Cabinet, had gone up to Capitol Hill to visit Republicans in their lair, even invited some of them to the White House, and they responded with "the usual political games."

"I suppose what I could have done was to start out with no tax cuts, knowing that I was going to want some, and then let them take credit for all of them." He pulled up scorn and poured it on. "When I hear from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history," he said. "I inherited the deficit that we have right now, and the economic crisis that we have right now."

The new president is learning that it takes more "charm" to pacify Washington than any one man has -- even the man some call "the Dali Bama." He sounds incredulous that some of the Republicans are playing politics, forgetting that politics is what congressmen play, that it's the media's job to egg them on. He might as well rebuke linebackers for making quarterbacks miserable.

Most ominous of all, from the president's point of view, certain correspondents and pundits have noticed, many for the first time, that the president is mortal. Cracks are showing in the media bubble that protected him for so long. When Fox News' Major Garrett quoted Joe Biden's remarks suggesting that the stimulus might not work -- "If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, if we stand up there and we really make the tough decisions, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong" -- and asked what he thought about that, the president showed exasperation for his veep.

"You know," he said, "I don't remember exactly what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly." There was a ripple of giggles, and the president continued: "I think what Joe might have been suggesting, although I would not ascribe any numerical percentage to any of this, is that given the magnitude of the challenges that we have, any single thing that we do is going to be part of the solution, not all of the solution."

The vice president had said no such thing, and the president, who knows and respects the meaning of words, knew it. As he stretched like a yogi to make his own interpretation of this verbal exercise, he may have sought harmony, but the media chorus now waking up to the meaning of his mantras is less than serene.

He still has sex appeal going for him, but there's evidence that even the fantasies about him are beginning to provoke pangs of guilt. Judith Warner, a columnist for The New York Times, tells of dreaming about Obama: "He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs, and then he was being yelled at by my husband, Max, for smoking in the house. It was not clear whether Max was feeling protective of the president's health or jealous because of the cigarette."

This may be more than we need to know about Warner's intimate grooming, or her fantasies, but she demonstrates how consumed the media chorus has been with their object all sublime. Warner herself seems to see what's coming.

"If I were Obama (or Michelle, for that matter)," she writes, "I'd be a little scared. After all, when people are wearing their egos on their sleeves, it's so easy to bruise their feelings. What will happen when fantasy turns to contempt?"

What, indeed. That's when Barack Obama, apostle of good will and foe of partisanship, will understand why he'll never achieve nirvana in Washington.

An 'Obama Effect' on Learning

Fri, 06 Feb 2009 00:00:00 -0600

In a study of 472 Americans -- 84 black and 388 white, ranging in age from 18 to 63 -- who took a test of 20 questions before the presidential election, blacks got only 8.5 correct. Whites got 12 answers correct. After Barack Obama was elected, Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt and one of the authors of the research, tells The New York Times, the gap between black and white became "statistically nonsignificant." The test questions were taken from the verbal section of the Graduate Record Exam. Conceding the small sample, Ronald Ferguson, a Harvard professor who studies black-white achievement disparities, nevertheless says the study suggests that "Obama's election could increase an African American's sense of competence, and it could reduce the anxiety associated with taking difficult test questions." If true, we should anticipate racial disparities on standardized tests to diminish at least as long as we've got a black president. Who needs to read great books when the teacher in chief can wave a magic wand? These results may merely emphasize poor research by professors who must publish or perish, but it casts a flashlight if not a spotlight on the idea of test scores as a measurement of learning. Students learn what to expect and study for scores rather than for knowledge. Testing usually tells very little about what a person has learned. We've seen a dramatic change in the perceptions of how children absorb information. We've learned that there are simply no quick, easy ways to raise learning levels. Self-esteem and "role models" have little to do with learning -- parents must monitor their children's study habits. Merit pay and teacher accountability help school administrators pinpoint the best teachers, and this would help if the unions don't obstruct the clearing out of teachers who should get jobs in other lines of work. That's a very big if. There are the bright spots: Thousands of bright college graduates who avoided "Mickey Mouse 'education' courses" have joined Teach for America and are assigned to low-performing schools, demonstrating what can be done. But it's harder to overcome a culture of low expectations and obstacles to true learning. Many young people have lost the ability to enjoy silence and solitude, crucial ingredients for disciplined learning. The electronic culture has many virtues, providing quick access to information, but the din and dependency on interactive communication obstructs contemplation. Someone alone at a computer is not alone at all, but risking addiction to stimuli banging into his consciousness from a thousand sources. Students "text" each other during class, and cell phones interrupt walks in the park, concerts and lectures. Many schools won't allow a moment of silence at the beginning of the day because someone might suspect that a classmate is lost in a divine reverie. Who can understand what Walt Whitman meant when he said, "I loaf and invite my soul"? Many young people who find Thoreau a hero couldn't endure his isolation. The National Endowment for the Arts has documented how few read for pleasure. In bemoaning the end of solitude, William Deresiewicz in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes technology as a robber of privacy, of the pleasure taken in being alone, the ability to enjoy the self that thinks while reading. The Internet shortens attention spans, and the reading of books is reduced to skimming and skipping. No one dare asks, "What did you read today?" because the list is so long. No one could remember, anyway. "I believe," Thoreau said, "that grown men are still afraid of the dark." Today, they're afraid of the "blank screen," an iPod with dead batteries or a Facebook without frien[...]

A Forked Tongue Over Gaza

Fri, 30 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

After Israel announced a cease-fire, Ismail Haniya, the "prime minister of Gaza," came out of hiding and declared victory. Such chutzpah, observes der Speigel, could only be compared to the Black Knight in a Monty Python movie: "After King Arthur cuts off both of the knight's arms and legs, he tells him, 'All right, we'll call it a draw.'" What happened in Gaza is tragic, but the satirical comparison is not far-fetched. Hamas is winning world public opinion for a seat at the negotiating table as the hue and cry against Israel's "disproportionality" continues to dominate the international media. The moral balance weighs on behalf of Hamas despite its cowardly decision to place rocket launchers and armaments in mosques, schools and hospitals. Talk about "eyeless in Gaza" (with apologies to Aldous Huxley). In the Middle East, it's the blind who think they see most clearly. The Europeans, terrified into paralysis by the Muslims in their midst, echo Arab claims. Protesting crowds in Paris, Berlin and London blame the Jews and elevate Hamas to heroic status merely for surviving Israel's onslaught in Gaza. "Hamas has survived the war," observes Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German newspaper. "It exists, and it is here to stay. Therefore, it is essential that an easing of the Western boycott against the Islamists is considered." By this logic, the Palestinians might deserve a seat on the United Nations Security Council as soon as they lose a few more wars. Humanitarian help for wounded civilians is the honorable thing to do, but anything more is perverse. The cease-fire was quickly broken by Hamas. Not everyone in Gaza sees "survival" as euphemism for victory. Gaza builder Mohammed Sadalah, whose house was appropriated by Hamas to use as an emplacement for guns to shoot at Israelis, spoke to reporters as he stood in the ruins of what used to be his bedroom. Hamas came to power by handing out groceries with a message of change, an antidote to the corruption of Fatah, but Mohammed Sadalah is not persuaded. He points to the destruction of his village: "That is the change that they brought about. We were blasted back 2,000 years." Some former Hamas supporters like Sadalah think Hamas is likely now to follow the example of Hezbollah, which like Hamas claimed dubious victory against Israel in 2006. But Hezbollah gave no help to Hamas for fear of Israeli retaliation. It understands how bad that bad can be. When rockets were fired at Israel from Lebanon, the Lebanese prime minister lost no time in condemning them. On Jan. 27, many people interrupted their daily routine to recognize Holocaust Memorial Day, an observance marked this year against the marches of those who wish Israel and the Jews only ill. Jewish-owned shops across Europe were sprayed with insulting graffiti, and marchers shouted insults reprised from the Nazi days: "Gas the Jews," and, "Get back to the ovens!" Anti-Semitism always speaks with a forked tongue. Few Europeans decried the excessive force of Hamas as it fired more than 6,000 rockets since 2005 at Israel, killing and wounding civilians, and turning every night into a fearful nightmare. Where was the appreciation of the skill of Israeli pilots who carefully calibrated targets in neighborhoods where Hamas hid weapons and supplies, dropping leaflets warning Palestinians to get out of the neighborhood? Remembering Jews killed in the Holocaust is important, but memory must recognize the perpetrators of violence as well as change attitudes. As long as a double standard exists toward Jews, memorializing the Holocaust becomes empty sentiment and "never again" a vacant promise. "There are a great m[...]

The Pomp Passes, Circumstance Lingers

Fri, 23 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

He reminded us that in a country where only 50 years ago his father wouldn't have been served in many whites-only restaurants he now dines on duck and pheasant as the guest of honor in a grand hall of the Capitol. It was quite a show, drawing on inspiration rather than interpretation from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Elizabeth Alexander recited the poem she wrote for the inaugural, giving poetic images of the ordinary people in the crowd. We caught touching verbal glimpses of a woman and her son waiting for the bus, of a farmer checking the sky for hints of rain, of a teacher telling her children: "Take out your pencils. Begin."

She evoked images of the ordinary men and women who make our republic possible and strong, who lay the railroad tracks, build the bridges, pick the cotton and the lettuce, who sit at kitchen tables figuring out how best to "make do" when the doing grows ever more difficult. The poet's specifics are often lost in the lofty phrases of politicians: "We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider."

As I considered and reconsidered all those smooth and spiny inaugural words and watched the crowds spread out on the Mall with their earnest, sometimes ecstatic faces, I recalled the day in 1964 when I sat with thousands of other Americans, black and white, listening to Martin Luther King Jr. tell us that "I have a dream."

On that unusually hot March afternoon, a photographer panned the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial and caught several of us with our feet in the reflecting pool, tiny figures in a throng who had no idea we were listening to history. We wound up in Look magazine illustrating the cover story. The words that day floated overhead in inspirational cadences, but some of us, many of us, were grounded in grievances, in a hurry to make the world a better place at a time when many black Americans were not allowed to vote.

Flash forward two score and five years to a cold January day where Barack Obama is sworn in as our 44th president. The crowd is bundled in heavy jackets and scarves, and no one would risk feet in the icy reflecting pool. But the new president remembers Martin Luther King: "Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character's content."

Over the weekend, I talked to a group of aspiring journalists, ages 8 to 18, covering the inauguration for Children's Pressline, an organization that teaches kids who want to be reporters to learn how to cover a big story with big questions.

"I want the policy details," says Alex Tebo, a seventh-grader from New Orleans, who adds he sharpened his questions every night at the dinner table in a debate with his parents. Alex and his young colleagues wanted to know how the new administration intended to solve the problem of delivering affordable health care, particularly for children, whether they could expect better schools and better teachers, what could be done to bequeath a future without crushing debt.

All good questions. How will Washington answer? That's the big story just now beginning to play out now, as the multitude departs the capital and the new president is left with our impossible dream.

We're All Ears

Fri, 16 Jan 2009 00:20:00 -0600

"Ask not what your country can do for you," John F. Kennedy famously said in his inaugural address in 1961, "ask what you can do for your country." What followed is often lost in memory, but no less important, addressed to his fellow citizens of the world: "Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man." The Europeans could usefully hear that again. I spent the season between November and January reading inaugural addresses. They not only reflect the man himself, but the history of the moment. Some soar with poetic cadences, others are blunt and workmanlike, still others puffed up as with wind. No doubt Barack Obama has read much of that rhetoric as he crafts (with the assistance of a helpful ghost) the words he will speak next Tuesday. But behind each speech is yet another creator, who George Washington called "the Great Author of every public and private good," who conducts the affairs of men with "an Invisible Hand." We firmly separate the established church and the state, but presidents who swear to uphold the Constitution nearly always call on heavenly intercession. Thomas Jefferson, who was attacked as an infidel and a disciple of Voltaire, a man who would cast Bibles into bonfires, reflected at his second inaugural on his reliance on God, suggesting that America was the new Promised Land: "I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life." Even presidents characterized by reserve can recover their voices at their inauguration. Calvin Coolidge was known as "Silent Cal," stoic and grave. Once, when a dinner companion said she had made a bet that she could make him say more than two words, he replied: "You lose." But he rose to the inaugural occasion in a speech of 4,078 words. Such numbers nevertheless pale in length to the longest speech (so far), given by William Henry Harrison, the hapless and hatless president who succumbed to pneumonia after delivering, bareheaded in a snowstorm, an inaugural address lasting nearly two hours. He gave the longest speech but served the shortest term as president. He died 31 days later. The best inaugural addresses are inspirational, appealing to what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." They speak to our commonality, to what we cherish in our government, the triumphant reminders of who we are and how far we have come. "The American sound," Ronald Reagan called it. "It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent and fair." Like Walt Whitman, the Gipper heard America singing. But these are not upbeat times. Today, the music is muted if not discordant, as we confront our economic woes. We're in a recession, not a Depression, but the recollection of the soothing voice of Franklin Roosevelt reminds us that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The radio on that chilly March day in 1933 -- the inauguration was moved forward to January in 1937 -- resonated with the power of reassuring warmth only later recognized as illusionary. He prescribed discipline and direction to tackle the problems facing the nation. Alas, it finally took a war to do that. Barack Obama has hard work ahead. He has earned his reputation as a wordsmith, and he's immodest in his aspirations to make Lincoln his model. He would have to do better than anyone else to approach Lincoln's poetic call for unity even before the Civil War, evoking "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and [...]

The Sleeping Children of Israel

Fri, 09 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

The Obama girls, like other girls in the West, are lucky. They could read the latest from Pakistan, where girls their age are forbidden to attend school. Taliban militants in the Swat Valley have banned education for all girls beyond the fourth grade, which disqualifies girl-children like Malia, who is already in the fifth grade. Educating girls, a mullah decreed, is "un-Islamic." While Obama tends the relationship with Pakistan and its contributions to the fight against terrorism, he'll be aware of how repressive the Islamic culture can be in the places where terrorists hide.

The world is watching America for flashes of insight into the power change in Washington, and what they see should inspire. We wrote the first chapters of our history permitting the evil of slavery, but we eliminated it at great cost of blood and bitterness, leading 150 years later to the election of a black president whose children are not relegated to segregated schools.

Historically, the transition time between the election of a president and the inauguration is one of national vulnerability, but Obama can find this interim to be an asset. It gives him time for reflection before he must make judgments about dealing with events over which he has little control. For two more weeks, knee-jerk critics can blame George W. Bush for defending Israel's right to defend itself.

We already know about Obama's commonsensical observation about Israel's right to survival, offered during the campaign. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night," he told an audience in Israel in the summer, "I would do everything to stop that, and would expect Israel to do the same thing."

He has been criticized for not bringing his sentiments up to date, but silence can be useful. During the four-month interim between Lincoln's election and his taking the oath of office, he was scolded for his silence, too. But Lincoln was both intuitive and gifted in knowing when to speak and when not to speak.

"(He was) gathering the intelligence and momentum needed to arm himself for the brutal challenge awaiting him," writes Harold Holt in his book "Lincoln: President Elect." Obama frequently compares himself to Lincoln, so we can hope he's using his time to similarly reflect.

By putting himself in the shoes of an Israeli father, as Hamas hurls rockets into homes where his children are sleeping, Obama defuses the criticism of those who say Israel's defensive war is "disproportionate." When he sits in the Oval Office, he will be better prepared to mediate peace between Israel and a weakened Hamas. We weep for the children on both sides in this continuing war, but we remember that only Hamas uses children as human shields for the rocket launchers it installed in their schoolyards.

The Wall Street Journal describes Israel's invasion of Gaza as its version of the "surge," observing that "Israel, with enemies on all sides, must maintain an aura of invincibility if it is to have any chance of peaceful co-existence."

Israel's enemies are legion, and they are poised to test Obama's willingness to sit down with them without preconditions. But when he becomes President Obama, he must remember the sleeping children of Israel.

Out With the Old

Fri, 02 Jan 2009 00:00:00 -0600

We're counting on the new president to save jobs, salvage homes, extend health care, win wars in two places, receive immigrants who seek a better life and repel those who want to do us harm. And that's just before lunch. We organize ideas through the political parties and can only hope that the leaders put in positions of power act on reflections forged by educated minds. Many roads lead to Washington, but we can be sure of detours along the way -- and none of us can be sure of what lies at the end of the road we take. Robert Frost said it well in his poem "The Road Not Taken." Some will veer left, others right and still others the straight and narrow path in perilous times. But whatever road we choose to follow, we ought to be able to unite behind the importance of what our children learn. We want the next generation to be prepared with knowledge based on "the best that's been thought and said in the world," in Matthew Arnold's famous formulation. Sadly, such education is being lost. Most college graduates today have studied only a smattering of great books, and those often taught with ideological bias. This failure filters down to the youngest among us, narrowing opportunities for an expansive education because their teachers are trained by academics that show disdain for our cultural past. In a provocative book titled "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life," Anthony Kronman, once dean of Yale Law School and now a professor of the humanities there, blames two intellectual viruses that have infected teaching at the highest levels: an emphasis on arcane research that is unreadable even by professors trained to write the unreadable and political correctness. By focusing on ideological distinctions, students are deprived of the great works that explore patterns common to humanity that transcend politics. Not everyone agrees on all the titles suggested by "great books," nor should any list be carved in stone, but surely we can agree on the classics that should be required reading. The National Great Books Curriculum Academic Community in Chicago (, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, helps professors and colleges set up and teach classes in great books for minority and nontraditional students, and at practically no cost. According to Bruce Gans, who founded the program and teaches at Wilbur Wright Community College in Chicago, it offers students who are victims of a poor education "the chance to be enlightened and deepened by the central ideas that shaped our civilization through a rich and challenging liberal education." The courses not only provide opportunities to increase "cultural literacy," but the students "gain analytical skills, acquire the ability to read complex texts." They gain the self-respect that accompanies accomplishment. Great reading encourages great writing. At his inauguration, Barack Obama will take the oath of his presidency on the Bible where Abraham Lincoln placed his hand to swear to uphold and defend the Constitution. Lincoln's father was illiterate, but the boy persevered by candlelight, reading great books, sensing something special in words and how they are ordered. "He became what his language made him," writes Fred Kaplan in "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer." "No TVs, DVDs, computers, movie screens, radios or electricity, and no sound-bites." Not even our wondrous electronics enable us to turn back the clock, but we can organize a core curriculum for the next generation, a curriculum [...]