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Susan Estrich: Respect and Responsibility

The president's critics could learn a thing or two from the lessons taught to schoolchildren

The gifted woman who headed my children’s elementary school, Reveta Bowers, always said that teaching kids values was as important as teaching them skills. Maybe more, I have come to believe, as my children got older. Facts are easily forgotten; what isn’t is the determination you show in learning them, the responsibility you take in trying. The values we teach our children, at home, at school, at our places of worship, are what will hopefully stand them in good stead as the challenges get bigger and harder.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich

Learning to work hard, get along with others, accept failure, redouble your effort — that’s what school is about, as much as sine and cosine; learning to accept responsibility and show respect is critical to every other lesson.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that these are the things President Barack Obama talked about in his address to the nation’s schoolchildren last Tuesday. There was no partisanship in the speech, nor was there any reason to expect there would be. There was no call to pass a government option for health care or support gay marriage or grow up and register Democrat.

Even some of the president’s harshest critics admitted, after the fact, that the speech was entirely appropriate and inspirational.

So why did they make such a fuss beforehand?

Why have we been “treated” to days of conservatives clamoring that the president had no business addressing the nation’s schoolchildren on the first day of school? How is it that conservatives have allowed their own antipathy for the president to subvert the values we should be teaching our children?

Take respect for the presidency. I would have thought that was a very conservative value. As a matter of fact, I can’t tell you how many times I heard conservatives attacking liberals for not showing respect for President George W. Bush, and rightly so.

So why not this president?

Last week, Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, attacked the president’s planned speech, accusing the president of trying to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.” Today, after he read the speech, he admitted that it was a “good speech” and speculated that maybe the president changed it because of him.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Now what is the lesson you’ve taught America’s children?

Show no respect for the president. Assume the worst.

Do no wait for facts. Attack first, verify later.

Go for the jugular. Not educate but “indoctrinate.” Not Democratic but “socialist.”

When you turn out to be wrong, don’t admit it. Don’t apologize.

Instead, take credit. Even if you have absolutely no facts to suggest that your smears had anything to do with the speech, say it’s because of you that it was a good speech.

Got that: First you attack, smear and lie; then you take credit for the fact that what never was going to happen didn’t happen.

Conservative? Not in my book.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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