Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Did adults learn anything from Obama speech controversy?

With all of the public attention focused on President Barack Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren, I had to wonder: Did the adults learn anything?

Obama urged kids to study hard and not give up, even if they don't like some classes or things are tough at home. He reminded students that each of them has special abilities and that it's their responsibility to develop them.

The president acknowledged that like many of us, he was "a little bit of a goof-off" when he was young. He told kids that success takes hard work and that nobody else will do it for them.

It was a speech that could have been delivered by any responsible leader, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.

It was a pep talk about personal responsibility, not politics. But from the way the right-wing fringe and some Republican Party officials reacted to it beforehand, you would have thought Obama was planning to sprout horns and advocate devil worship.

There was a lot of bluster about Obama "overstepping his authority," even though previous presidents have made similar speeches. Timid school officials offered opt-outs for students whose parents objected. Cowardly school officials skipped the speech all together.

Last week, Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, called Obama's plan to speak to children "very concerning and kind of creepy" and an attempt "to circumvent parents" and "gain direct access to our children."

Robertson and some talk radio entertainers focused on an ill-chosen phrase that federal education bureaucrats used in material prepared for teachers. The phrase, suggesting that teachers could have students write letters to themselves about how they can "help the president," was reworded to how they "can achieve their ... education goals."

It seemed like a lame excuse for objecting to a presidential speech, because that's exactly what it was.

Some GOP leaders have no interest in working with Obama and other Democrats, whether its rebuilding the economy, reforming health care or anything else. They just want to see Obama fail.

The talking heads of the right-wing media relentlessly bash Obama. They shamelessly distort facts, incite fear and call anyone who disagrees with them radical, socialist or even communist. It's a profitable business model, because gullible listeners lap it up.

Obama is no radical, unless you think "middle of the road" means the right shoulder. But there are radicals out there, on both sides of the political spectrum, and this episode is a good reminder that responsible people should be wary of them.

American politics has always been messy, but it works pretty well. In robust, fact-based discussions among responsible people, ideology usually gives way to artful compromise and practical solutions. One of history's best examples was Lexington's own Henry Clay.

On the other hand, history's ills can usually be traced to political or religious ideology and extremism, from Mao's China and Hitler's Germany to the Spanish Inquisition and modern Islamic terrorism. Those perpetrators were certain they were right and their opponents were evil, and they had no reservations about saying or doing whatever it took to win.

Obama's agenda and proposals should be carefully studied and vigorously debated. Thoughtful discussion could lead to good compromises, better ideas and ultimately solutions for the nation's problems, some of which can be traced to past examples of ideology trumping common sense.

That has become more difficult, though, because modern communications technology amplifies the voices of irresponsible extremists, ideologues and the willfully ignorant people who follow them.

The best lesson to take away from the president's speech to schoolchildren is that personal responsibility is a good concept for adults, too.

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