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Presidents walk fine line when talking to schools

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By Chuck Donovan

The White House plan for President Barack Obama to deliver a national back-to-school address earlier this week to elementary and secondary school students was unusual, but not objectionable on first glance.

Would most Americans raise concerns after learning President Ronald Reagan planned to speak to the nation's children? Or that, fancifully, President John F Kennedy had wished to follow on his famous inaugural address by exhorting the nation's youth to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country?

What's troubling here is that a government-prepared lesson plan seemed to ask students what they could do for President Obama.

Wasn't the response to the news of the Obama address -- White House aides rushed to revise prepared "study guides" on how schoolchildren could "help" the president after conservatives questioned the motives -- merely a function of our politics? Not exactly.

No firewalls exist between what defines an appropriate forum for a presidential speech to young people and what crosses into the realm of the unseemly or offensive. Several elements of President Obama's decision to make a formal speech to America's schoolchildren do, however, raise disturbing questions. Such events are nearly unprecedented for good reason.

Just what was new on this occasion? Previous presidents addressed young students en masse, and with justification. Typically, however, such occasions involve addresses to the American people in which teachers, spontaneously or as a result of historical circumstances, already were attuned to a national event.

Take, for instance, President Reagan's address after the Challenger disaster. Across the country that clear January morning, millions of schoolchildren had been watching the space shuttle launch on television. They witnessed the heartbreaking spectacle of the explosion that killed New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts.

Schools everywhere carried Reagan's appropriate words of consolation and encouragement. It's certainly possible he would have addressed the nation after any daytime calamity on this scale, but the fact that boys and girls across the land already were watching made Reagan's speech, and the words he chose, perfectly fit.

In 1991, when President George HW Bush made a speech broadcast live from a DC junior high to urge young people nationwide to study hard and avoid drugs, Democrats criticized him for using the Department of Education to produce "paid political advertising."

American presidents, of course, speak regularly to individual school audiences. They drop in on classrooms, read to younger children and deliver speeches for graduations and campus-wide events.

Such a visit, though, even when quasi-political in timing and location, is well mediated. The purpose could be to advocate policy or undergird an administration theme, but the events tend to involve the larger community. The children present provide an audience. They generally are not the audience.

I know something about helping a president communicate with schoolchildren. In the 1980s, I was a writer for President Reagan. One of my duties was to supervise the White House Children's Unit. Its director, Connie Mackey, and I initiated an effort -- aggressive at the time -- to respond to the high volume of mail a president receives from children.

Besides responding to kids' letters, we crafted a newsletter covering about six issues at a time. Our undiluted intention was to inform young people about Reagan's views and policies. We sent these newsletters directly to schools, with a clear understanding: The students themselves had written to the president on the topics.

The very notion could be criticized as an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money. We thought it preferable either to not responding or devoting time and money to individualized answers. And we had no Internet to help.

More often than not, an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds spawned the need for the president to respond. It was amazing how many 9-year-olds "spontaneously" opposed welfare reform or the placement of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Someone had suggested the kids write letters to the president. And it wasn't Mom and Dad.

On Nov 14, 1988, in the final weeks of his two terms, President Reagan did in fact make remarks to Washington area junior high students and field questions in a program taped in the State Dining Room and aired by C-SPAN and PBS. Reagan, however, did not distribute assignments to his national classroom -- nor did Bush in 1991.

Something different appeared to be afoot with the Obama address. An American president, the subject of a highly unusual "study guide" crafted in advance by his political aides working with the Department of Education, seeks to take his message to the nation's schoolchildren after his roughest month in office.

No great historical occasion, unanticipated or emotionally gripping, is foreseen. The entire school community isn't involved; civic institutions don't frame the appearance. It's just teacher, President Obama and Jack and Jill.

The president's speech will be about "the value of education and the importance of staying in school," a White House spokesman said. "It's not a policy speech."

Still, one apparently unaltered question in the study guide asks children: "What new ideas and actions is the President challenging me to think about?"

A good answer would be the one my mother always advised me to give the salesman knocking at the front door: "You have to talk to my parents."

© RealClearPolitics

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

24 Comments
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I watched the address on tv.

Can so many Americans really be so sensitive(read weak)???

They object to govt. words at the proverbial drop.

All the while living a lie in the biggest theocracy on earth.

Object to that and you're a real red.

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What's the point of all of this? A tiresome old con blowing wind. What Obama did was not unusual, a president talking to American kids. The cons manufactured an issue out of something that was not an issue. The sad thing is that a number of school districts were intimidated by the cons and wouldn't let the kids hear their own President. Reminds one how yakuza rightist intimidate people here in Japan.

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Can so many Americans really be so sensitive(read weak)???

We sufferred through 8 years of Dubya so, yes.

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A president talking to schoolkids would not have been an issue even 10 years ago. It shows just how much the US has turned into a glorified banana-republic.

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It's a little more than just a talk to school kids.

Link to lesson plan: http://www.ed.gov/teachers/how/lessons/7-12.pdf

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probably because the last president couldn't hold a book the right way up.

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I think it is great that he is talking to kids too and not just adults.

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The annoying thing about Obama is that he is so full of himself. Take this segment of his speech to the students:

Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Can someone tell the man that the election is over and he doesn't have to take credit for everything and place himself at the center of every issue?

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last time i checked, the Prez was the leader of the most powerful country on earth...pretty sure he's allowed to be full of himself. Contrast that to your average japanese politician, who's royally full of himself with absolutely no reason

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We must indoctrinate the youth while they are still young and mold-able. Obama is the father to many.

However, I am too old and just want to know where the 1 Trillion went? -A gulag is the only way to mold me now.

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Haha! This guy was Reagan's teleprompter!

Anyhow, 2 days later, nobody anymore is talking or crying about the speech. Much ado about nothing, like it's gonna make much difference either way. Yet, I suppose it's better people talking about staying in school than nobody talking about it. That can only help, I guess.

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last time i checked, the Prez was the leader of the most powerful country on earth...pretty sure he's allowed to be full of himself. Contrast that to your average japanese politician, who's royally full of himself with absolutely no reason

If it had been Bush saying these same things, would you feel the same? I think not. Note the difference from when Bush 1 did this. The dems held hearings on the subject. Is anyone shocked about this? It is very unusual, particularly for a sitting president to go and give a campaign speech to schoolkids. He is the President, he is not a teacher, nor an educator, he has no business instructing the young. Parents are right to be upset. Particularly when a President whom less then half of the country supports is giving an speech to their children without them present. If he wanted to speak to the children of the country, he could have addressed the nation in an appropriate and accepted way. He didn't wish to. He wanted to go the indoctrination route, hence the materials his staff handed out via the department of Education. Materials they later had to retract and apologize for. The writer of this article got it right. So many people have gotten it wrong. I'll say it again, he has no business instructing children.

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Molenir:

If it had been Bush saying these same things, would you feel the same?...he has no business instructing children.

Bush embarrassed himself every time he opened his mouth. How could he exhort children to get educated?

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Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.

Ok.. thats a little to much pressure to put on primary school kids.. (elementary school kids), maybe upper high school, ya know, years 10-12, but yeh.. lower then that, they are still learning, there main focus should be Learning, Making friends and finding themselves slowing in there own time.. not all this "dont let your country down", damn thats a big motivation for some, but it could be too much stress for others.. "Cant let the president down or my country i have to pass 2nd grade speelling - OMG i spelt reading wrong! IVE LET THE COUNTRY DOWN!!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" lol over dramatic i know but can you see where im coming from here!

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Firestorm over speech.... "Flat out stupid" says Tom Friedman http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/200909060005

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Maybe if Obama was a white male (say idiot george bush ) people wouldn't care !!!! Goes to show people who critize him are racist.

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Bush embarrassed himself every time he opened his mouth. How could he exhort children to get educated?

You're thinking Bush 2. It was Bush 1, who was similar to Obama gave a speech to schoolkids, that was then investigated by the Dems. That said, had it been either of the Bushes or Clinton who did it, I would still be oppposed. Like I said, the President has no business trying to indoctrinate children.

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Molenir - Indoctrinate?????????

Americans are indoctrinated in every aspect of their lives in every day of their lives by a multitude of vested interests - only most don't even realize it - yet.

He is not a teacher - phew!!!

A few huffs & puffs to the poor lil' ol' kids who-are-so-frail-and- sensitive-and-so-easily-mislead. Oh No!!!

Better spend your indoctrination cents on trying to convince young Americans to stop believing the war on terror lie and that'd certainly free up the education options.

of

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Why is this piece even up here?

First of all, it's a blatant piece of partisan propaganda. But more importantly, It's not Japan-related and the content of the editorial was out of date even when it was posted. It speculates on what Obama's speech will be about after his speech has already been made and the real analysis has already been done on real news sites.

Last I checked, the name of the website was JapanToday, not PartisanPropagandaAboutAmericanPresidentsInThePast.

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Pretty much all politicians visit and give speeches at schools, including critic Florida GOP chair Greer, Bush Jr when 9/11 happened, and Obama just earlier this year. It's just that those are not on national TV, but they still do it. If indoctrination is an issue, they could just ban all politicians from schools. But then, that could become a freedom of speech issue.

(KobeKid, that doesn't even make sense. Indoctrination could come from anyone.)

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BTW, a Texas school just bussed students across town without their parents to hear ex-Pres. George W. Bush's speech. Hahaha!

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if american parents did a better job of raising their children, the president wouldn't have to speak to them. most american teenagers are wastes of human lives, anyway. why bother to speak to them?

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Maybe if Obama was a white male (say idiot george bush ) people wouldn't care !!!! Goes to show people who critize him are racist.

I critize americans in general lol white or black has nothing to do with this. :)

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The website listed at the bottom of the commentary gives it all away: Chuck Donovan is a right-wing noise machine puppet. His bloviating isn't worth the time of reading, let alone be taken seriously. Mr. Donovan goes on and on about how presidents should speak to American Youth as a whole, yet we have the very specific example of George W. Bush reading to an elementary school class in Florida on September 11, 2001. Please take what Mr. Donovan says with a huge block of salt!

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