Fool Me Once 

Botched proverbs, bad bologna and other miscellaneous observations from Bush’s visit

Botched proverbs, bad bologna and other miscellaneous observations from Bush’s visit

Why did President Bush visit East Literature Magnet School last week on his fundraising trip to Nashville? “Because this is a center of excellence, a school that refuses to leave any child behind,” was his politically familiar explanation. There’s more:

♦ As the commander-in-chief spoke to 200 students and 300 invited adult guests, 400 students in the school’s fifth through 12th grades were, er, left behind in their classrooms on “lockdown,” a word normally reserved for occasions of violence or dangerous intruders.

♦ Maybe a war-hungry president inviting himself over for a photo-op rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance and a historically dubious justification for invading Iraq is a dangerous situation. But he wasn’t the only one hungry. According to East Lit’s student-run Web site, “The politicians [at Lamar! Alexander’s fundraiser] were treated to a $1,000 meal of chicken salad and a small dessert. Meanwhile, over three-fourths of the ELM student body were locked in their classrooms for over three hours after having a 15-minute lunch of bologna sandwiches and a piece of fruit.”

♦ Overall, though, the students—and the principals, teachers, politicians and parents—didn’t seem to mind the sacrifice. “It was a great opportunity to meet him,” says Misty Stevenson, the junior class treasurer at East Lit, who was among the 15 high school students invited to the event. “I tell people wherever I go that I shook the president’s hand.”

♦ As it turned out, reciting the Pledge was a secondary political aim of the Bush squad’s visit. The prime objective apparently was to simplify the pitch for invading Iraq to an argument that no freedom-loving fifth or sixth grader could resist. And the president tried to teach the kids a little U.S. history along the way. “Part of American history teaches us that we must lead toward a more peaceful world,” he told his onstage audience of 10- and 11-year-olds (the demographic the presidential advance team demanded, according to school officials), noting that “we are a peaceful people” and that “when we see oppression, we cry.” That was one of the strategic reasons for the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, he said—because young girls there weren’t allowed to go to school before the U.S. intervened. (He didn’t mention the countless times the U.S. has seen oppression and looked the other way because it wasn’t in the nation’s “national interest.” The Rwandan genocide comes to mind.) Yes, the president concluded, “Our history shows that we’re not a nation which [sic] conquers; we’re a nation which [sic] liberates.”

♦ But not everybody shares Bush’s rose-colored view of American history. According to David Sanger, who covered the event for The New York Times, some high school students were overheard after the speech wondering aloud “if the Indian wars or the Spanish-American War might be considered wars of conquest rather than liberation.” Erik Schmeller, a Tennessee State University assistant professor of history who trains and supervises student teachers for grades seven through 12, says the kids are onto something. “I would definitely agree with the students,” he says. “I think the conquering aspect of late has taken on a larger role.” Schmeller says that the Spanish-American War “is generally regarded as the first obviously imperial war fought by the United States.” But he noted that the Mexican-American War, an earlier expansionist war fought in part over Bush’s home nation of Texas—and by an honorary Tennessean, President James K. Polk—“was pretty bad too.” Schmeller says the kids have a healthy, critical understanding of American history. (Too bad the president doesn’t.)

♦ But if the history lesson was lacking, Bush had some dandy sayings to share with the kids. Rumor has it he inserted a few “yourselves” in the Golden Rule that didn’t belong there. And then there’s the one that made all the late night talk shows: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee,” the leader of the free world explained, “that says, fool me once, shame on...[pause]...shame on you. [Long, awkward pause] “If fool me—can’t get fooled again.” Beg pardon?

♦ Finally, three days after teaching Nashville’s youth that the U.S. is everybody’s peace-loving friend and hero, the administration released a national security document detailing its strategy of preemptive strikes, weapons proliferation and military unilateralism.

School kids usually can recognize a bully when they see one. Let’s just hope they don’t get fooled again.

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