George W., Folklorist

George W. Bush gave a speech on Nov. 2 advocating “moral education.” Chatterbox agrees that “values” should play a larger role in educating children, which is why he supports well-regulated programs requiring high-school kids to perform volunteer service of some kind. A danger of injecting “values” more fully into school curricula, however, is that if it isn’t done thoughtfully, it will end up presenting certain pious and erroneous sentiments as fact. This is an oft-noted weakness of some of the liberal “values” teaching that already goes on in schools–a lot of silly misinformation about the environment and ancient African civilizations, for example, routinely ends up being passed along by bumfuzzled elementary-school teachers. This drives conservatives (and even many liberals) batty. Increasingly, something similar seems to be happening when “conservative” values (like a literal belief in the Bible) get taught at the expense of evolutionary science. If moral lessons are to be taught more forthrightly in schools, it’s important that the distinction between knowledge and folklore be maintained.

In his speech, though, Bush himself seems to have stumbled over that distinction. In a litany of examples in which teen-agers have shown “character and courage beyond measure,” Bush cited the following:

When a gun is aimed at a seventeen-year-old in Colorado–and she is shot for refusing to betray her Lord.

This refers to Cassie Bernall, one of the teen-agers shot by their classmates Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at last April’s Columbine High School massacre. Shortly after the shooting, the horrifying story spread that before she was shot, one of the two killers asked her if she believed in God. She said yes, and the gun was fired. The anecdote became the basis for cover stories in the Weekly Standard and Christianity Today and for a best-selling book, She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, written by Cassie’s mother, Misty Bernall. But as was reported somewhat tentatively on Sept. 25 in Salonand subsequently confirmed elsewhere, the story almost certainly isn’t true. “We strongly doubt that conversation ever occurred,” Steve Davis, spokesman for the Jefferson County, Colo., sheriff’s office, told the Washington Post’s Hanna Rosin.

What investigators now believe really happened is that another girl, Valeen Schnurr, was shot in both arms and then asked if she believed in God. Schnurr said yes and, for whatever reason, the assailant wandered off without harming her further. (Schnurr recovered and is now a freshman at the University of Northern Colorado.) She Said Yes acknowledges this in a backhanded way, with the caveat that “the exact details of Cassie’s death … may never be known.” In the Post piece, which appeared on Oct. 14, Rosin explained that Schnurr is not going out of her way to tell her story, because whenever she does it’s interpreted as a betrayal of Bernall. “You will never change the story of Cassie,” the Bernalls’ pastor, Dave McPherson, told Rosin:

The church is going to stick to the martyr story. It’s the story they heard first, and circulated for six months uncontested. You can say it didn’t happen that way, but the church won’t accept it. To the church, Cassie will always say yes, period.

What goes for the church apparently goes for George W. Bush too. It’s inconceivable that Bush and his staff don’t know the Bernall story has been discredited; Bush’s speechwriter, Mike Gerson, was until a few months ago a journalist, for Pete’s sake. (A very good one; Chatterbox used to work with him at U.S. News.) At the risk of sounding judgmental–and meaning, of course, no disrespect to Cassie Bernall and her tragic murder–Chatterbox concludes that Bush’s decision to use the story anyway is something a little worse than exploitative. It’s immoral.