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A DIFFERENT O’DONNELL! Foser’s tape recalled the time when Norah O’Donnell pushed back: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 16, 2009

Drum gets it right/prelude to Brooks: We’ll guess that Kevin Drum’s (educated) guess is right about Obama’s education address. In this post, Kevin takes an (educated) guess at what Obama meant by this part of last week’s speech:

OBAMA (3/10/09): Let’s challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums into the 21st century. Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and getting the same grade. Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom 40 percent of the world.

As we noted, the highlighted statement is basically incoherent (as is the statement which follows it). Mississippi fourth-graders are scoring nearly 70 points lower on what? What “same grade” are these two groups getting? In his post, Kevin takes a (very good) guess. We’ll guess that he gets it right.

For the record, if Kevin’s assessment is correct, the meaning of Obama’s statement is quite convoluted. Simplifying, Obama’s complaint would come to this: As compared with his peers in Wyoming, a Mississippi fourth-grader gets rated “proficient” in reading for achieving what amounts to a much lower test score. In Mississippi, a child who is reading less well gets rated “proficient.” In Wyoming, a child who is reading (substantially) better gets ranked as not “proficient.”

In our view, it would be hard to overstate how trivial this matter is. It doesn’t much matter what children get called; what matters is how much they learn. Would Mississippi’s fourth-graders learn more if they were officially scolded, not praised? In all candor, it’s hard to believe that this makes any real difference. Heaven forbid that some kid in Mississippi gets to hear something positive! (If they even hear about how they got rated.) In our view, it’s not a good sign that Obama’s education aides thought this was a key point.

Tomorrow, we start a four-part report about this recent column, in which David Brooks offered his views about Obama’s education agenda. Before we start, let’s quickly review a few things we said last week:

A brief shining moment: Some of the speech was A-OK. It was good that Obama called for more early childhood education—and it was very good when he insisted that these programs must be effective. In all candor, liberals often praise such programs because they reflect so well on the good intentions of liberals. Obama created a different measure: Are these programs really helping real kids?

A flat misstatement: It wasn’t good when Obama, our president, seemed to misstate certain facts and certain broad situations. In particular, this gloom-and-doom presentation about “relative decline” seemed to trade day for night:

OBAMA: Let there be no doubt: the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens...

And yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us. In eighth grade math, we’ve fallen to ninth place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one. Just a third of our thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds can read as well as they should. And year after year, a stubborn gap persists between how well white students are doing compared to their African American and Latino classmates. The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children—and we cannot afford to let it continue.

That’s a deeply gloomy portrait—one that’s hard to square with the facts. In fact, those US eighth-graders have risen to ninth in the world, in a long, steady improvement. (In 1995, US eighth-graders finished 23rd on that same international assessment.) On the home front, do those “stubborn” achievement gaps “persist?” Evidence across several decades shows that those gaps have been shrinking. In short, evidence from national and international measures (including the measures Obama was citing) seems to show US performance improving. We may not be satisfied with the degree of improvement, but that gloom-and-doom about crumbling schools and sliding grades seems hard to square with the facts. We hate to be the kill-joys here. But at this point, that “relative decline of American education” doesn’t seem to exist.

We’d have to say we found this troubling. It’s rare to see an American president misstate a basic situation so grandly in such a major speech.

That magical thinking: And then, we had the familiar, magical thinking about higher state educational standards. Let’s be clear: Every child should be pushed to achieve as much as possible, whether that child is working at, above or below traditional “grade level.” But kids who are years below traditional norms aren’t likely to be helped (or even affected) if their states decide to adopt “tougher educational standards.” For decades, journalists and “educational experts” have treated higher standards like some sort of self-realizing magic elixir. (If we adopt them, they’ll be attained!) This is profoundly silly thinking. We were sad to see it stressed in Obama’s speech.

We were intrigued by Brooks’ column—in part because Brooks is smart, in part because we believe he’s sincere in his positive reactions to Obama’s educational program. For our money, the scribe seems drawn to magic himself. But magical thinking doesn’t work—at least, not for kids who need the most help, those good, deserving, decent kids who may be near “the bottom.” We think those kids got ignored a bit—by Brooks, and in that speech.

Three cheers for Valerie Strauss: In this morning’s Post, Valerie Strauss does a darn good job fact-checking Obama’s speech. (Headline: “Putting Some Straight Talk Into Obama’s Education Speech.” Oof.) She notes that eighth-grader have risen, not fallen—though she does understate the size of the rise. She cites aspects of Gerald Bracey’s work. She even raises this question:

STRAUSS (3/16/09): In his book "Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered," Bracey raises a number of questions about the reliability of international comparisons. One issue is whether students tested represent a country's population.

On international measures, are the national samples representative? We can’t help you with that question. Big major journalists should.

One small point: Obama’s statements about “the relative decline of American education” got trumpeted on the Post’s front page. Strauss’ fact-check appears at the bottom on page B2. And quite literally, it’s in smaller print.

A DIFFERENT O’DONNELL: We’d give Jamison Foser the “Howlitzer Prize” for this superlative piece from Friday’s Media Matters (although we’d make him share it with Boehlert). Yes, he’s covering a topic we’ve been pushing—the hapless way the press corps has treated the earmarks in the recent spending bill. But Foser presents the matter quite clearly. And he goes one step beyond, offering this gruesome video of MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell as she interviews Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle. We strongly advise you to watch.

Foser accuses O’Donnell of “deliberate stupidity,” referring to the way she clowns about termite and pig-odor research. We found it sad to watch the tape, because we remember the time when a younger, better O’Donnell played a very different role on this gruesome network.

According to Nexis, O’Donnell became an “NBC political analyst” in 1998, at age 24. Unless we’re mistaken, we’d briefly met her the year before, before he’d done any TV. We recall telling some at the Hotline during that period that she would obviously become a big star. She was always extremely telegenic—and she was obviously plenty bright by the standards of TV news talkers.

O’Donnell began playing Hardball in 1999, when that program’s gruesome host began his disgraceful War Against Gore. And in those days, a younger, much better O’Donnell pushed back against the type of nonsense she dispenses on Foser’s tape. Doing what is never done, she routinely challenged Chris Matthews’ foolishness. She was often ridiculed by this host—a man who doesn’t plainly like being contradicted by women.

In 1999, this happened quite a bit—but that was a different O’Donnell. One example:

Our favorite push-back by O’Donnell occurred in the wake of Gore and Bradley’s first Democratic debate. The “press” was inventing a string of complaints about Gore’s laughable, dishonest, Clintonian performance. By way of background, this had been a “town hall” debate, with New Hampshire citizens posing questions directly to Gore and Bradley. On several occasions, citizens asked Gore questions involving their children. In one or two instances, Gore had dared to ask these citizens how old their children were.

In what follows, you see two nasty men raining down the hail of insults the liberal world sat still for:

MATTHEWS (10/28/99): What did you make of them, side by side? How did they strike you, watching them both perform last night?

TONY BLANKLEY: Well, I mean, I thought Bradley seemed on the edge of being disengaged. It—it's a close call.

MATTHEWS: Did he look at his watch?

BLANKLEY: But—no, he didn't quite do that, but that could easily shift in sort of, into an arrogant disengagement. It didn't quite—it wasn't quite to that level, but close. Gore looked like he was—you know, like the kind of person who was doing sex after having read a book about how to do it. I mean, it was just—I mean, this business where he was personally asking questions of the—“How old is your son?” He would ask that question and then he'd go back to his policy drone. I—so I—I mean, it looked like he was sort of cribbing from the Clinton style, but Clinton would follow up and make it all personal. So I thought he was pretty clumsy in his style.

MATTHEWS: Well, you remember—you're not as—Tony, you are, might be as old as me.

BLANKLEY: I might be older.

MATTHEWS: Do you remember that Mr.—well, remember "Mr. Wizard" that was on television in the '50s?


MATTHEWS: It was Don Herbert and he said, “Today, boys and girls”—it was almost like—all like Sherman in a “wayback machine,” too. It was so avuncular. And, and the questions—you're right! What does it matter whether the kid's in the sixth or the eighth grade? The point was pretty general.

Gore “looked like the kind of person who was doing sex after having read a book about how to do it.” He reminded Matthews of Mr. Wizard speaking to children—of Sherman in the Wayback Machine. (These were all Standard Themes.) And what did it matter whether the kid was in the sixth or the eighth grade? This nasty, stupid man threw to O’Donnell, and omigod! It’s never done! O’Donnell answered his stupid question in a short, direct manner:

MATTHEWS: And, and the questions—you're right! What does it matter whether the kid's in the sixth or the eighth grade? The point was pretty general.

O'DONNELL: I think it matters—I think, Chris, it matters to the parent that was asking the question.

Ow! Anyone with an ounce of sense would have cheered the bright young person who responded to that stupid question in that slightly insolent way. Matthews was less pleased, of course; indeed, he’d had this sort of problem with O’Donnell several times during the year. He was soon mocking her good grades in school—and “explaining” that Gore had behaved that way because some consultant told him to do so. Just like Blankley, Matthews knew that the whole thing was bogus, phony and fake:

MATTHEWS: What does it matter whether the kid's in the sixth or the eighth grade? The point was pretty general.

O'DONNELL: I think it matters—I think, Chris, it matters to the parent that was asking the question.



MATTHEWS: Yeah. So you like—so you like that interrogative, Norah?

O'DONNELL: Well, I think any—I think criticizing presidential candidates for trying to connect with voters perhaps—

MATTHEWS: But was it an authentic connection or was it something that his consultant told him to try?

O'DONNELL: I think that's—well, whether or not—I mean, whether or not it's authentic enough, he was, he was doing it, and appeared genuinely interested and he got a couple of interesting responses, in particular from the man who happened to be the president of the local union there at Dartmouth College.

MATTHEWS: Well, you know in school when you get—

O'DONNELL: So it, it worked for him and it—

MATTHEWS: Hey, Norah, you know when you get a C in a class—you may not have ever gotten one, but sometimes when you get a C or worse, you go to the teacher and you ask if you can do something extra credit. It was like—at the end of that debate, when it was clearly over for both of them and the—and the cameras were being struck, for Al Gore, the vice president of the United States, to publicly say, “I'll be glad to take any other questions after the cameras are gone, hint, hint.” I'm really he—do you think that was a serious grown-up, mature offer or was that just a cheap little deal for him to make himself look more concerned?

O’DONNELL: I, I mean, I'll take it that it was sincere. I mean, I remember when all of us were sitting here a couple of weeks ago, and the secretary [Robert Reich] was talking about the word passion, and that Al Gore did not have enough passion. Now it looks and appeared last night that he was certainly more passionate than he's been in several weeks and perhaps more passionate than Mr. Bradley.


O'DONNELL: He was engaged with the voters...

On this program, they were slamming Gore for engaging with citizens. And omigod! Unacceptable! O’Donnell noted that, just weeks before, these same old crones had been slamming Gore for not engaging enough!

We can’t post the tape of that segment today, so you can’t hear the derisive tone of a certain famous host. But he’d had this problem with O’Donnell all year. O’Donnell was punished on the air, several times, because she failed to play dumb for her host. So was Elizabeth Holtzman, who dared to talk back (accurately). So was Ohio pol Mary Boyle. By 1999, it was pretty clear that a certain famous nut had a small gender problem.

Unfortunately, that O’Donnell no longer exists. Just check Foser’s tape.

Over the weekend, we happened to watch the end of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) again. First Brooke Adams succumbs, then Donald Sutherland. And then, there’s Foser’s tape of O’Donnell. In this case, pods haven’t floated from outer space—at least, not as far as we know. Different process! In this case, big wads of money are handed to scribes—but only if they will succumb.

“I think it matters to the parent.” That person no longer exists.

By the way: How disgraceful was the derision being aimed at Gore that night? As we’ve explained in the past, here is one of the two exchanges to which Matthews and Blankley seemed to refer. You really have to be sick in the soul to ridicule someone for this:

BERNARD SHAW (10/27/99): Please, your name and question for the vice president.

QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is Corey Martin and I live in Hanover. There's been talk tonight about health care reform. And I am the parent of a child who has diabetes and I spend a lot of time dealing with the insurance companies and what's covered and what's not covered, and it eats up a lot of time and effort. So I'm wondering, if you were to implement health care reforms, who would be the decision-makers? Who chooses what's covered?

GORE: How old is your child, Corey?

MARTIN: She's five.

GORE: And do you have an insurance policy?

MARTIN: Yeah. I work at Dartmouth and we have a very good policy.

GORE: Oh, so you're—you have a good policy here? Okay, very good.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. We're very lucky.

GORE: You know, we've just had a big increase in our research for juvenile diabetes, and I'm hopeful we can find a cure for that and cancer and other diseases...

Gore had inquired about a sick child! (As it turned out, the child was five.) For that offense, store-bought ex-humans like Matthews and Blankley battered him all about the square. And these complaints were quite widespread. Here was the gruesome Lady Collins, in Gotham’s great New York Times:

COLLINS (10/29/99): Al Gore has a personality without a thermostat, and when he tries to look animated he practically crashes into the wallboard. On Wednesday he hijacked the auditorium early on, begging for a chance to do a pre-debate Q.-and-A. ("This person has a question! Do we have time for his question?") He tossed in a little Spanish and a long joke, and made endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience. ("How old is your child, Corey?” “Are you unionized, Earl?") At the end, he refused to be dragged offstage. ("Can I say one more word? I would like to stay!") He bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the kid who asks the teacher for more homework. Mr. Bradley, lounging on his stool, arms folded across his chest, looked like the high school athlete watching the class nerd volunteer to stay and clap erasers.

You see? It was just as Matthews said! When Gore asked Martin about her sick child, it was one of his “endless attempts to create Clintonesque mind-melds with the audience.”

By the way: If you ever watch the tape of that debate, you will have a very hard time understanding what debate Collins was watching. And yes: This was the famous debate where the press corps, locked in its own press room, spent the entire hour jeering, hissing and laughing at Gore. (Tapper, Pooley and Mortman described it.) They emerged from the room to offer their thoughts about what a big phony fake Gore had been. Collins forgot to let you know what they had done in that room.

Collins’ body had already been snatched. But a different O’Donnell roamed the earth at that time. She responded to Matthews that night in the manner long observed among humans.

By the way: Your liberal heroes sat around for two years and let this sick process roll on.