Let Them Eat Education

Is “No Child Left Behind” Bush’s answer to everything?

I don’t want to suggest that George Bush has an unhealthy fixation with children. All I know is, every time the going got tough in the debate last night, he dusted off the young’uns for a fresh go-round. While Kerry mopped the floor with Bush, wrung him out, hung him to dry, and then used him to buff said floor to a high-gloss wax finish, the president clung monomaniacally to a single mantra: education. For a C student who doesn’t read the newspaper, George W. sure is big on education—and understandably so, given the apparently magical properties of his education policy. No Child Left Behind, which we thought was just a way of getting around funding schools by blaming the system’s failure on teachers and children, turns out to be an all-powerful panacea, capable of solving problems completely unrelated to either education or childhood. Job creation? Reproductive rights? No problem. We’ve got NCLB!

The most egregious example of the education non-answer was after Schieffer’s question about the fate of the minimum wage. After Kerry promised to fight “tooth and nail” to raise the wage from $5.15 to seven dollars, Bush ignored the question entirely, using his 90 seconds to muse about how the No Child Left Behind act is “really a jobs act when you think about it.” Right, because the wee tots being educated now may someday grow up to have jobs—provided they don’t starve to death in the interim because their parents have no jobs now. Gotta love a piece of social policy with a 20-year delay built in.

In some feverish briefing session or other, Bush must have seized upon the idea that that old slogan about him being “the education president” had actually resonated with voters. (Since then, of course, there’s been a slight change in plans: he’s now the “war president.”) Rather than take a clear position on health care, Roe v. Wade, the minimum wage, or job loss—all of which Kerry nailed last night—Bush negotiated every rough patch by holding aloft the talisman of “education.” Who knows, maybe No Child Left Behind is the answer to the war on terror itself. That would explain all that time on Sept. 11 spent listening to My Pet Goat.

Wednesday, October 13 , 2004

Last night was a fine night for channel-surfing. Like an old-school DJ switching between turntables, a skilled wielder of the remote control could sample simultaneously from The Choice, a new PBS Frontline doc comparing the bios of George Bush and John Kerry, and Manhunt: The Search for America’s Most Gorgeous Male Model, a reality series premiering on Bravo. Switching back and forth between the two, you could almost start to forget which man-on-man battle was which. Leading the free world’s cool and all, but a six-figure contract with IMG modeling agency in New York—that would be really sweet.

The Choice didn’t have much to offer that most informed voters don’t already know, but it punched its point home with a set of binary oppositions so laughably stark, they evoked the old cartoon strip Goofus and Gallant: at Yale, Kerry was the head of the campus political union and captain of the debate team; Bush was president of “Deke,” Delta Kappa Epsilon, “the hardest-partying frat house on campus.” On his first date with Teresa Heinz, John Kerry took her to the Vietnam War Memorial to point out the names of his lost friends; Bush and Laura Welch attended a backyard barbecue in Midland. (No word on which of the two candidates got laid later that night.) In 1968 Kerry’s Swift boat was reassigned to a Mekong River hot zone straight out of Apocalypse Now, while Bush, according to a friend from his National Guard days, “clearly enjoyed the aura of walking around in a flight suit, being a flyboy.”

I wonder if he would have enjoyed the aura of jumping from an airplane clad only in Calvin Klein boxer briefs, lashed to a skydiving instructor. That was the quasi-military test imposed on the hunks of Manhunt, to the tune of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” (The choice of soundtrack settles the matter: Despite its marketing pitch as eye candy for women, this show is gay, gay, gay.) An older male model lined the boys up in their skivvies to inspect them like a Marine sergeant, barking out critiques: “A little Men’s Fitness-y,” he scolded, scrutinizing one muscled torso. Wait—isn’t a male model supposed to look Men’s Fitness-y?

Sure, it’s unclear how skydiving in your underwear relates to the job of modeling, but the same might be said of the tests we impose on our political candidates. Will we really learn anything from tonight’s debate that we wouldn’t learn from subjecting the candidates to the ultimate test: gravity? After Manhunt’s first elimination round, one rejected hottie sulked that some undeserving contenders had made the first cut. “I’m not going to name any names,” he said, “but America can figure it out by themselves.” On November 2, we will. … 7:42 a.m.

Monday, October 11 , 2004

Wonktoberfest continues! With three days to go till the third presidential debate, those in need of a political TV fix can revisit the early days of the campaign with Diary of a Political Tourist, a new documentary by Alexandra Pelosi that premieres tonight on HBO (8 p.m. ET). Pelosi, the daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, followed the Democratic hopefuls through the 2003-2004 primary season, tagging along with the legitimate press at the candidates’ photo ops: John Kerry plays ice hockey with staffers! Joe Lieberman eats a fried Twinkie at a county fair! Pelosi’s stated objective was to “capture the dance” between the press corps and the candidates. Unfortunately, with her facile sarcasm and healthy dose of self-love, all she captures is a portrait of the artist as a narcissistic twit.

Though she’s presumably a Democrat, Pelosi and George W. Bush have quite a bit in common. Both are the entitled scions of political families who have managed to parlay their access into successful careers, despite a remarkably tin ear for the language of their chosen profession. But if Pelosi’s powerful family can buy her access, it can’t make her subjects take her seriously. For 82 minutes, we watch as the filmmaker traipses to press events, accosting the harried candidates with coy, schticky questions that make you cringe in embarrassment for all concerned. “If Gore is boring and Bush is dumb, what are you?” she asks Kerry on his campaign plane. To his credit, he not only refuses to answer, but rejects the terms of the question. Finally, Kerry grabs the camera and turns it on Pelosi herself, asking her, “Are you a caricature of this whole process?” ” I’m becoming one, I guess,” she responds.

Because the candidates are so visibly uninterested in talking to her, Pelosi is at times reduced to practicing her snark on laughably easy targets. “We want Joe! We want Joe!” chants a little boy at a rally for Joe Lieberman. “Joe who?” Pelosi asks the child, and seems to relish leaving the camera on his face for a long moment as he blinks in confusion. Those damn 5-year-olds. So ignorant about the electoral process.

If nothing else, Diary of a Political Tourist offers an unintentional and chilling glimpse into the far-reaching power of nepotism. Congresswoman Pelosi must not only have clout among her fellow Democrats. She must know someone really important at HBO. … 6:34 a.m.