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Jewish World Review March 30, 2000 /23 Adar II, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Visiting with W. -- HERE YOU HAVE some scattered notes and assorted asides on the visit of the GOP's heir -- and nominee presumptive -- to Little Rock, specifically to Historic-Central-High:

First comes the waiting. I like to get to these things early to clear the metal detectors and check out the security, which looks nice and comprehensive, not just the usual motorcycle escort for show.

This is assuring. It has been since the time I saw a reporter and jerk fly into a speechifying huff because somebody wanted to see his I.D. before a presidential candidate arrived at the little airport in Pine Bluff, Ark. It was 1972, and the candidate was George Wallace, who was gunned down in a parking lot a month later. I've never objected to security, before or since.

The waiting can be the best part -- like getting to a concert in time to hear the Philharmonic tune up. There is something sweet and anticipatory in the jangled sounds. Then comes the tired march of the jaded national press corps off the bus and into their seats, and you know this is supposed to be work.

I sit toward the back of the high school library, somewhere in the vicinity of "Roosevelt: The Lion and the Fox'' by James McGregor Burns and "Ayn Rand'' by Baker, James T.

A poster on the wall proclaims: "Business Books for the Ambitious.'' Another good omen: a biography of Orwell on the shelf next to me.


The state's Republican establishment has turned out in force, trailing press aides and apparatchiks. There's the governor, first lady, lieutenant governor, senator. ... The public school establishment is there, too. It's nice to see these two elites together; they've been apart too long, to the detriment of both.

By bringing them together for the occasion, George W. Bush may already have accomplished something even before he strides to the mike. Stylistic note: Presidential candidates do not walk; they stride.


George W. Bush may be the first Republican presidential candidate in years who can be taken seriously on education. He's eloquent on the subject, having found a way to give voice to something that has been troubling Americans for years, and proclaiming a new civil right -- the right to read. What could be more liberating?

"For decades in America, the great goal of education was to provide access for all. Millions of American children were prevented by bigotry or poverty or disability from sharing in the full promise of our country. ... Today we have a great challenge of our own. Access is universal, but excellence is not. All can enter our schools, but not all are learning. There is a tremendous gap of achievement between rich and poor, white and minority. This, too, leaves a divided society. ... No child in America should be segregated by low expectations ... imprisoned by illiteracy. Now we have a system of excessive regulation and no standards. In my administration, we will have minimal regulation and high standards.''


At Central High, almost half a century after Dwight Eisenhower enforced the law of the land here, a Republican candidate for president invokes Ike's name, and even a time when it was the Republican Party that stood not just for law and order, but civil rights:

"Forty-three years ago, the right of nine students to a good and equal education was something worth fighting for. Worth the full attention of the president of the United States. Worth the full exercise of his power. Worth a thousand troops on the grounds of this building. President Eisenhower acted decisively to remove what he called `a blot upon the fair name and high honor of our nation.' Public education, and the opportunity it creates, are still worth fighting for. Still worth the full attention of a president. And reforming our schools will take that kind of commitment. It will take a strong executive to overcome inertia. To oppose vested interests. To open the doors to reform and change. ... Our common good is found in our common schools. ... This, I believe, is the next advance in the cause of equality, the next frontier of civil rights.`

The Candidate doesn't have to say who now stands in the way of reform and change, equality and opportunity. He doesn't have to name the stultified teachers unions and the party they control. He needn't point to an administration that has finally come around to realizing how charter schools can free the underprivileged, but still doesn't see how school vouchers for poor families could do the same. He needn't specify all the tired, fearful kneejerks still stuck in the past, so caught up with saving the process, the precious system, that they've lost sight of a small detail like what happens to the children.


Off camera, the man who would be president is easily, enormously engaging. He's good-looking in a rugged, squinty, Texas kind of way, and either he's wearing a very good suit or is in excellent physical condition. Probably both. He speaks easily, readily, and his Texas origins are clear in every word. You'd never take him for a Yalie, a high compliment in these parts.

Texans are not really Southerners, but a closely allied race. (Lee always called on Hood's Texans when he was in a real tight fix. If they'd fought just a little worse, The War might not have gone on as terribly long as it did.) George Bush's Texican sounds like home, his interjections natural.

Introduced to a debate teacher, our visiting Texan is quick to say: "I could use a little help!'' He warns that this administration will promise aid to education, then "play like they're going to have more teachers.'' And he shares everybody else's respect for a fearless principal like Central High's Rudolph Howard, whose real first name is Mister.


The candidate shifts a little too easily from persuasion, which is effective, to insistence, which isn't. His favorite phrase is "Let me finish,'' and one suspects it'll get favoriter as the presidential debates near.

But W. gives his most impressive performance when confronted by the zealous president of Central's student body, who's come loaded for grizzly. You can see W. champing at the bit to respond, but consciously holding back, showing respect and even encouragement for the spirit of youth, prolonging this conversation, peppering it with good humor, letting his inquisitor go on. He addresses the young man as Mr. President ("It's got a nice ring to it'') and declines to be rescued by the principal. In the end, the student president, too, is disarmed and nodding in the affirmative, agreeing that he never had any objection to charter schools. ... You can tell W. was raised right.


Then come the questions from the national Media. It's hard to believe they just heard the same discussion I did. They're out to provoke, find a lead for the next story they've got to file, see if they can't hit pay dirt. They're interested in conflict, in political strategy, and they've heard W.'s points before. What's most remarkable, so has W., and yet he retains his spontaneity, his freshness, his interest in phrases he must have repeated a thousand times by now, and even his interest in those of us asking the questions.


History occurs twice, said the first Marxist, first as tragedy and then as farce. But in America, the land of happy endings, history occurs first as event and then as re-enactment. Now a presidential candidate has revisited the scene of the crisis -- Central High. He won't be the last to make the pilgrimage. One of these days, we'll all get it right.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate