- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 8, 2009


This is a big week for the president’s teleprompter. He’s first taking it across the Potomac for a speech urging schoolchildren to wash their hands, study hard and stay in school.

Good advice for everyone, no doubt, and maybe the advice will stimulate the sale of soap to people who really need it. Politicians particularly should take to heart a presidential admonition to keep their hands clean. Who can argue with that? Democrats everywhere are looking for places where the applause will be at least polite, with no yelling, screaming and waving of hands. The Secret Service, which never sleeps, can keep its guns holstered at a high school in middle-class suburban Virginia, where the kids are usually unarmed and likely to pay attention to the rare president in their midst.

The reception Wednesday night on Capitol Hill, for the president’s speech to an unusual joint session of Congress, will be a little different. There will be no one to throw a soft tomato or a rotten egg; this audience will be a wrack of frightened rabbits begging the president for a lifeline (or at least a carrot). Congress is back in town after a month on the Western front, and still befuddled and a little shellshocked from taking fire from angry constituents. Nobody wants what the president is selling, insofar as anybody can figure out exactly what he’s selling. The magic elixir may be the president himself, and lately nobody’s buying that, either.

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Rarely have Americans spoken up with such bold energy and ferocious power, organized by amateurs in the grass roots disdainful of both parties, and the fright was more than enough to make congressmen wet their pants, many of them twice.

Mr. Obama, safe behind the presidential shield, nevertheless got a taste of constituent anger at a distance when he tried to recruit America’s schoolkids into the Obama cult of hope, change, peace and other vaguely good stuff. Write a letter to yourself, his Education Ministry told the kids in “a lesson plan” distributed to classrooms across the country, and tell the president what you can do to help him. The operative word here, clearly, is “him.” This sounded a lot like a cult of presidential personality to millions of American parents - the bigots, evildoers and Nazis of the fevered and frightened Democratic imagination. Promote your agenda, but not with my kids, the parents told the White House, loud and clear.

The White House, first dismissing the protests as “silly” and pretending that Mr. Obama’s speech was really only about hand-washing and good toilet etiquette, finally backed down with the familiar explanation that “we didn’t do it and we won’t do it again (at least until next time).” Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, offered a “clarification” that his bureaucrats were only trying to say that the kids should “write a letter about your own goals and what you’re going to do to achieve those goals.” Some “clarification.” If you can’t trust the teacher to write a simple declarative sentence in the first place, who can you trust?

But Wednesday night, the children’s hour will be over, and the president’s real audience - the American public - will be eager to take Mr. Obama’s measure. This will be a crucial test of the teleprompter. The usual platitudes, empty eloquence and a reworking of earlier great moments in presidential grandiloquence won’t cut it. Congress will be waiting for genuine specifics about how he expects to “reform” health care, and the public will be waiting with more than a little skepticism.

Mr. Obama has so far offered soft rhetoric instead of hard reality, and that was all right for the campaign. He was only feeding what he discovered was an insatiable appetite for pretty words delivered with easy charm and synthetic grace. Reality, alas, finally intrudes. This time there’s no one to apologize to, no one left to charm with buttered eloquence, no one left to applaud polished hackery.

(Corrected paragraph:) Having finally flayed the bones of George W. Bush into a handful of dust, the White House, unable to persuade and convince, in desperation turns its contempt on the American public. The president’s press spokesman Monday derided the parents’ protest as “an ‘Animal House’ food fight.” This sounds less like strategy than surrender. Mr. Obama was educated at Harvard Law School, but a professor at Grinder Switch A&M could have told him that no matter how tempted he may be, a lawyer never insults the jury. The jury gets the last word.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

• Wesley Pruden can be reached at wpruden@washingtontimes.com.

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