Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

The Promise Of Governing Pretty

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Finally, I have some thoughts about what we've been hearing in the presidential campaign so far. As we've mentioned, I went to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, and if you heard my remarks on NPR's late night coverage, then you know that I was impressed by the acceptance speeches given by both Barack Obama and John McCain. Both featured practical proposals to solve the nation's problems, as well as soaring appeals to our better selves.

But there was one line in John McCain's speech, in particular, that got my attention, where he said that education is the civil rights issue of the century. Now that really made me sit up and take notice because that's an argument that civil rights leaders like John Payton of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund have been making for some time now. And I would add that our current President, George W. Bush, has been saying much the same thing for the last eight years since he started talking about ending the "soft bigotry of low expectations," and he pledged that his administration would be dedicated to making sure that all kids in this country get a first-rate education no matter where they lived or what color they are.

Which is why it is so interesting to me that at the same Republican Convention and in the days since then, we find a Republican determined to use Barack Obama's education against him — that he's being ridiculed as a lightweight snob by no less than Republican Convention keynote speaker Rudy Giuliani and vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin. Giuliani pointed out that Obama had gotten a fine education before he sneeringly noted that Obama then went to work as a — horrors — community organizer.

Now, aren't these the same people who have been telling poor people, in general, and black people, in particular, that their problem these past few decades is not discrimination — that it's education, and closing the achievement gap is the key to solving their problems?

But now that there's a black man who has actually done that, who's not just survived but thrived, according to their rules, they want to trash his accomplishments. Why not just come out and say what so many surly, depressed, under-achieving kids in the cafeteria have been saying for years to break black kids who speak standard English and want be somebody: you must think you're white.

And while we're on this subject, aren't these the same people who've been telling poor people, in general, and black people, in particular, that government is not going to save you, that you have to learn to do for self, that you have to take responsibility for your communities and your families and show up and participate in society? Now that you have somebody who has actually done that, worked outside of government, teaching and encouraging people to do things as simple as go to PTA meetings, these Republican standard bearers want to mock and demean that work.

What happened to the thousand points of light, the brainchild of another Republican, President George H.W. Bush? But, oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. There's an election to win.

Can I Just Tell You? ... I get it. This isn't the first time somebody has tried to win ugly with the promise of governing pretty. And I'm not worried about Barack Obama and his feelings; although I'm sure he has some. I'm worried about those angry black, brown and, yes, white boys who've been turned off to studying, who got the message that it isn't cool to be smart, that if you hit those books and speak well and try to aim high and bring others with you, you are a punk and you can expect to be ridiculed and treated like a freak.

Of course, Giuliani and company don't use that word. They like the "E" word — elitist, which is pretty rich coming from a former civil-servant-turned-multi-millionaire consultant. Maybe they think that what happens in a campaign stays in a campaign, but it doesn't. As any parent knows, or should know, kids are watching and listening all the time.

Criticize Obama's politics if you want — say he's too liberal, his ideas won't work, he's too young. But spare me the elitist rap. The kids in my neighborhood are listening. And I want for them what I, Obama, Giuliani and John McCain and the crew already have. An education.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues