When conservative foot-soldiers began to kick up a storm last week about President Barack Obama’s plans to deliver a manipulative, underhanded “Study hard, stay in school” message to America’s students, much of the rest of the country responded, quite reasonably: “Wait—you’re kidding, right?” It seemed the latest sign that portions of our public debate have come entirely unhinged, with predictably perverse consequences (like fourth-graders sitting alone in empty classrooms so they may be spared the sight of our head of state and commander-in-chief).
But as Byron York reported yesterday for the Washington Examiner, this wasn’t the first time a president’s speech has caused an unexpected hue and cry. The last time our chief executive addressed students in a televised speech—George H.W. Bush’s remarks to Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington, DC on Oct. 1, 1991—his remarks were similarly anodyne. (“Goofing off is not cool, says Bush,” the Guardian had it in its headline.) The next day, though, The Washington Post ran a front page story accusing the president of turning “students into props.” Democrats in Congress, York notes, took the bait, holding a hearing and demanding an investigation. (The General Accounting Office found that the use of Department of Education funds to support the event was legal and that the speech did not “appear to have violated the restrictions on the use of appropriations for publicity and propaganda,” York reports.)
So score a point for York, a conservative journalist who’s provided fellow conservatives some material to play everybody’s favorite political game: “Your side did it first!” But before we move on, it’s worth lingering a moment on that WaPo story—not available through the paper’s online archives, sadly, but easy to dig up for anyone with a Factiva or LexisNexis account—as an object lesson in what hasn’t changed in political journalism.
One truth that’s still around: narratives matter, and once they’re in place, they shape coverage of everything. The Post’s criticisms—and those of Democrats who piled on—stung because the elder Bush had a well-earned reputation as someone who didn’t really care about education, or any other element of domestic policy. Thus, his speech, timed just at the start of a re-election campaign, could be painted as something even worse than manipulative; it was phony. As the Post put it right in its lede, the event was “the latest administration effort to demonstrate the president’s interest in domestic issues.” The not-so-subtle message: for “demonstrate,” read “fake.”
Another lasting reality: to make a politician look bad, feign naïveté. The Post was of course right that the event was stage-managed for political gain, but then, that’s what politicians do, and it’s not incompatible with the possibility of some mild public benefit being realized. Meanwhile, among the details reporters John Yang and Lynda Richardson unearthed, one—the White House’s decision to hire, at modest expense, a private company to film the address, after it became apparent news stations would do so only on a low budget, thus producing lackluster visuals—seems worthy of a raised eyebrow. But other insinuations of shocking—shocking!—manipulation mentioned in the article include the use of teleprompters; the selection of a racially-integrated school as the setting; and the (disputed) claim that students were encouraged to wear quiet, soft-soled shoes, or otherwise coached on how to behave on camera and with the president.
Good to see that the press’s use of a teleprompter as a sort of political scarlet letter has a long pedigree. Meanwhile, some of the world-weary students Yang and Richardson spoke to sound like they should be sitting at the end of the bar nursing their cynicism in a stogey and a fifth of scotch. Consider:
“I’m sure we’ll never see these pictures on a campaign ad,” Eleanor Davis, 13, volunteered sarcastically.
“I listened to what he said, but it wasn’t as if he hasn’t said it before,” said Nicole Phillips, a seventh-grader who watched the president’s classroom visit from the school auditorium on a large-screen television.
Said Jacob Noble, 13: “He should go to a place that needs help, not to a place that has all the help it needs plus more. We’re such a great school. Why doesn’t he go to one of the schools that isn’t known for its greatness.”
Finally, lest you be unpersuaded that presidential speeches may not lead to lasting shifts in opinion:
“I don’t really like the president that much, but when he got here I sort of forgot about it,” said Charlsye McKenzie, 13, a member of the student council. “But now that he’s gone, I don’t like him anymore.”
Now that Charlsye’s all grown up, what I wouldn’t give to hear her thoughts about tonight’s big health care address. Before we go, though, one serious thought about what’s different between these two faux-outrages. In 1991, as York notes, the political fallout came after the mainstream media jumped on the story. It was the Post, for its own reasons, that set the agenda. In 2009, it was the political push—from places well beyond D.C., and with a fierceness and apparent sincerity far beyond anything on display in the episode two decades ago—that forced the issue, and the media that had to figure out how to respond. This is, of course, one of the most important changes in the modern political world—one many in the media are still trying to make sense of.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.