Column: Bush soils what should be neutral ground

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Last week President Bush the Younger visited an elementary school near his ranch in Texas.

Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Last week President Bush the Younger visited an elementary school near his ranch in Texas. I don’t know whether he was invited by the school or if the principal, teachers and students were simply told he was going to be stopping by (though I suspect it was the latter). I also don’t know what the purpose of the visit to the school was originally (maybe to highlight some part of the President’s education reform agenda), but what it ended up becoming was another opportunity for the President to tell the world that when it comes to international agreements, he’s going to do things his way, and if they don’t like it they can just stick it.

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Well, maybe he didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but that was the gist of his intentions. The Bush administration is going to abrogate the ABM treaty whenever it feels like it, without any negotiation or compromise on the issue. That sort of attitude is bound to score points with certain kinds of Americans, particularly those people who can’t bring themselves to admit that other countries have the same right to defend themselves from potential enemies as the United States. But as a person who happens to think that the rest of the world (and the rest of the people in the world) are not just either our servants or our enemies, I find that sort of attitude both disappointing and counterproductive. I am also alarmed that this arrogance and insensitivity is being displayed as part of the preparations for a space-based missile defense system that still isn’t out of the theoretical phase of development and for which there has only been one minimally successful test.

But what was most disturbing about this pronouncement on the ABM treaty was that he made it in a school, in front of children and their teachers. Was this supposed to be their civics lesson for the day? Hey kids, being an American means that we only like treaties that allow manufacturers to move jobs to third world countries, not those that tell us what sort of weapons we can build!

What made the school visit especially grotesque for me was that the President had already scheduled a news conference on defense and military issues for the very next day, when he planned on introducing an Air Force general as the new Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – the President’s main military advisor. Why couldn’t the coming abrogation of the treaty have waited until then? Using the school and the students in the audience as the setting for harsh words about international relations was inappropriate and an abuse of the President’s status as a guest.

Of course, President Bush the Younger is not alone in his abuse of the school setting. Schools have often become settings for all sorts of political announcements that have nothing to do with the school a politician happens to be visiting. Ideology or politics makes no difference. High ranking government officials from both parties speak at graduation ceremonies or at other school-related events and instead of talking to the students and their families, they continue debates about controversies and conflicts with other politicians who are not even present. Whether they are talking about gun control or taxes or the ABM treaty, the school setting is merely a useful way for politicians to get attention and find a captive audience.

Schools are the places where we send our kids to learn more than they can by simply staying at home with their parents. Schools are set aside by our society for the use of teachers and students. And as such, schools are not just any old building open to being used by any group for any purpose. From my perspective they are more like churches than any other building, because the trust we parents place in them is pretty close to sacred. The building and the people are not there for politicians to simply grab hold of whenever they need a place and a captive audience to make pronouncements on policies and debate the merits of legislation. Publicize and defend your positions on arms control treaties Mr. President, by all means, but not at a school.

David Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.