With all the discussion this past week on Trump's insistence on opening schools, I thought that this would be a particularly good conversation on Al Franken's podcast to post here. Al (who was a member of the Senate Education Committee) talks with Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, about teaching during a pandemic and, as he puts it, “an important subject: how awful Betsy DeVos is.”
A few years back, the inveterate Chris Dunn told me about a comedian and filmmaker he liked, Mike Birbiglia. I've since checked out his work and, if I'm not at the same high level of appreciation as the Dunn fellow, I do agree with him that Birbiglia is good, and I like the fellow.
As it happens, Birbiglia was asked to give a commencement address at Georgetown University to the Arts & Sciences College, of which he's a graduate. And like all such commencements these days, it was a virtual one. (A common feature of all these is that they tend to be short. Even Barack Obama's commencement address to all high school graduates was only about six minutes. And Birbiglia's falls in that same range.)
He gave the address a couple weeks ago, and what with other things taking precedence we're only getting around to it now. But from there to here --
If you didn't get a chance to see the "Graduate Together" special last night, here is President Barack Obama's keynote speech.
He was low-key – only speaking for about five minutes, and it almost came across like a father talking to his kids. But he was so warm and so thoughtful and so decent. And got a brilliant dig into Trump that will infuriate him because it was so indirect without mentioning Trump that the proper response to his complaint would be, “But why would you assume he was talking about you??”
But then, the mere fact that Barack Obama was invited to speak to all high school graduates and not Trump is without question galling enough to him.
On this week’s Al Franken podcast, Al notes how “the Felicity Huffman/Lori Loughlin scandal pales in comparison to the scandal of our higher education admissions system, which protects the privileged and leaves everyone else behind.” So he and his guest Paul Tough talk about how the College Admissions system preserves our nation’s economic and social disparities.
One of the latest efforts by the Republican Party is to try and blame the college bribery scandal on entitled, liberal Hollywood elites. Meghan McCain did as much on her The View rant the other day when she attempted to paint herself as the victim (yet again) somehow. (I can't quite figure it out, but it involved Hollywood Liberal Elites not considering Arizona State University an Elite College like Yale and Harvard. And no, I'm not kidding.) And all of this effort -- as far as I can tell -- is because two actresses were on the list. So, apparently, in Far Right Conspiracy Theory World that means everyone was a Liberal Hollywood Elite.
What I find remarkable (although not surprising, given the empty state of today's Republican Party, throwing away the concept of morals to support Trump, accused pedophiles, wife beaters, pathological lying, neo-Nazis and more) is how Ms. McCain or most anyone on the far right actually know the political affiliation of all the donors. For all I know, they indeed all are liberals. Everyone of them. It's absolutely possible. Though what is even more possible -- in fact, probable -- is that they aren't. For all I know, 70% are conservative Republicans. (For those keeping score, note that I'm being fair enough to not say that they could all be Republican.)
I don't have a clue who they all are. And most anyone being fair would say the same.
What I can say, and do have a clue of is that --
Among money that can be directly accounted for, at least $220,000 went to Republican entities. Much of that to Mitt Romney, and a lot to the Republican National Committee, the Republican Senatorial Committee, and the Republican Campaign Committee. So, there you have it, and...Oh, okay, wait a moment. Not only that but also Lori Loughlin and her husband donated to Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mitt Romney (R-UT).
Well, gee, so much for that "Hollywood Liberal Elite Theory." It was really cool while it lasted... (Okay, with today's GOP, I have no doubt that this crackpot, disproven theory will nonetheless continue along with Pizzagate and HillaryIsTheRealOneWhoColludedWithRussia.
To be clear, there were donations to Democratic politicians and Democratic organizations. But then, I'm not someone blaming this all on reactionary Republican wingnuts -- or whatever the opposite is of Liberal Hollywood Elites. (Given that "Liberal Hollywood Elites" is often wink-wink code for "Jews," perhaps the opposite may be simply "Christians." Though again, I'm not blaming the scandal on them. As a fun sidenote, though, I did find a lovely interview with Lori Loughlin on the Christian Broadcast Network website where she talks about balancing her family, work and faith. It's very sweet.) Scrolling through the list, a quick glance appears reasonably split somewhat evenly between political parties.
(Disclaimer: Years ago, I very briefly had an agent who was just starting out. The agent's assistant was Lori Loughlin's sister. We had lunch once, though as personable as she was that was largely the limit of our interaction since she rarely responded to my emails which ultimately was one of the main reasons I left the start-up agency after only about six months, because I thought an assistant returning a client's emails was not an unreasonable expectation, at least as a starting point . I do not blame this on Lori Loughlin. She was busy balancing her family, work and faith.)
In the end, though, I think the only common denominator that we can fairly make about the people who paid bribes to get their children into colleges is that everyone of them were all financially well off. This is the polite term for "rich." So, if Republicans and Meghan McCain truly, honestly want to put the blame on anyone, that might be at least a good place to start.
Not that they will. Because it would give their brand a bad name.
Okay, worse name.
Six years ago -- almost to the day -- I wrote an article on the Huffington Post which I was thinking about the other day because it struck me as even more appropriate today to explain at least part of why Trump is president, and someone like a Roy Moore could come within two percentage points of being elected United States Senator. It was called, "The War on Education," and discussed a perception I've had for a long time that only continues to get proven again, over and over -- how the history of the Republican Party for the last half century has made a concerted effort to convince the public not to trust knowledge. Because when people don't accept the value of knowledge, they become so malleable you can make up anything you want and convince people it's The Truth. It ends up manifesting itself in voters who are taught not to think or question, but just "trust" everything they're told.
That was six years ago, and today we have the Trump administration trying to push the concept of "alternative facts," and cries of "fake news" against trusting honest, factual reporting, along with a president who lies so much on a daily basis that running totals are now kept by reporters. Only two weeks ago, the White House press secretary defended the president tweeting false video by saying that they spoke to a "greater truth." And for all this, there is a base which -- no matter how demonstrably, unarguably wrong something the president says is -- seemingly will literally follow him anywhere, off the edge of the earth if necessary, willing to support him, as he's said, even if she shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. It's gotten to the point where my most-common response on social media in a "debate" is -- "Willful ignorance is not a virtue." So, everything I wrote back in 2011 not only holds today, but is ratcheted up.
Here is the article, from December 1, 2011 -- "The War on Education." Yes, that's when it was written. Not last night.
Several years ago, a conservative fellow I was talking with got into a lather about a criticism he often heard. “Why is it,” he asked, “that liberals always say that Republican politicians aren’t smart?”
I politely avoided the quick answer. Besides, it wouldn’t have explained things properly. The truth is that “Republican politicians” aren’t remotely stupid. And there are plenty of Democratic politicians who are head-banging idiots.
That doesn’t mean the ball field is equal. It’s not. And conservatives only have themselves to blame for the rules they wrote and have been playing by for over half-a-century:
You Can’t Trust Really Smart People, Education Gets in the Way of Common Sense, Science is the Enemy of Religious Faith, College is for Over-privileged Elitists, Facts Matter Less Than What You Believe.
Those are the familiar rules that Republicans created. But it’s only the starting point. Because after making the rules, they played the game.
When Adlai Stevenson ran again Dwight Eisenhower for president in 1952, the big criticism that Republicans launched against Stevenson was that he was “an egghead.” Meaning, he was much too smart to be trusted.
When John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Republicans disparaged him for filling the White House with his “Harvard Mafia.” Meaning, there were all these people so smart they were scary dangerous.
After Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, he put college students high on his Enemies List. Meaning…well, that one’s pretty obvious. Especially considering that troops were later sent onto the campus of Kent State, and four students were shot dead.
In 1988, the first George Bush campaigned for president as “the education president” – yet in a speech to service workers in Los Angeles explained it wasn’t necessary to go to college. This was an absolutely valid position, but spoke volumes from a leader supposedly promoting education.
When the second George Bush was president, he trumpeted his “No Child Left Behind” program – and then under-funded it, leaving those very schoolchildren far behind.
In 1996, the Republican Party platform stood for abolishing the Department of Education.
Last year, 111 Republican senators, congressman or national candidates were on record to abolish the Department of Education.
This only touches the surface of the ground-and-air war against education that conservatives have been playing. A relentless pounding against the importance of education, to reject facts, ignore history, dismiss science. To mistrust the news media. When information is diminished, it requires needing to rely on others. It demands having faith that others will lead you safely.
Indeed, it is no accident that conservative politicians court the religious right as their party’s base. Religion is centered on belief, on unquestioning faith. And that is the path to unquestioning faith in everything.
It is no wonder that New Yorker author Ron Suskind reported a Bush White House official ridiculing those who live in “the reality-based community.”
It is no wonder that the far right dismisses the science of global warming. And when science offers the breadth of cures from stem-cell research, we saw the far right fight the science.
And it is no wonder that conservatives cry to see Barack Obama’s report card, hoping the mere suggestion will demean his impressive education that includes being elected president of the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.
If one doubts this, consider that you never heard Republicans demand to see George Bush’s college report card. Or called for the report cards of John McCain – who graduated 894 out of 899 students at the Naval Academy. Or insisted that Ronald Reagan release his report cards from Eureka College, where he did theatricals.
Yet Republicans made Ronald Reagan a conservative god. And it had zero to do with his education. And y’know, it didn’t even have as much to do with his conservative credentials, given how often he raised taxes, massively increased the national debt, signed a bill for amnesty to illegal immigrants and, as governor, signed an abortion rights bill. He might not be able to get past the primaries if he ran today.
Many conservatives don’t realize all these things about Mr. Reagan’s politics, but then…well, that’s the whole point of education, which teaches you how to learn such quaint things.
But when you are told for half-a-century that you can’t trust smart people and science, you end up with a party that lays itself open to a leadership vacuum.
And so, at one time or another, we get Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, a pizza guy and even Sarah Palin leading the pack for the Republican nomination. And now Newt Gingrich, who, as Paul Krugman put it, is a “stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”
No doubt, some will be up in arms by how supposedly-elitist this all is. Of course, wanting everyone to be as educated as possible is the exact opposite of elitism.
But then, calling others “education elitists” is one of those standard, conservative rules to demean education. Which proves the point.
Which brings us back, finally, to my conservative acquaintance wondering why liberals always say that Republican politicians aren’t smart. The problem is that he was looking at the wrong thing. This isn’t a matter of who is smart. There will always be people much smarter than you, me and even the smart people. Reading about a Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Galileo, Denis Diderot or Benjamin Franklin can only make one feel breathtaking awe. Republicans and Democrats are both bright and foolish. What this is about is the intentional, driven campaign for 60 years of Republican Party leadership to intentionally downgrade the importance of education. And what results from that when a party does such a thing to itself.
In short, it’s simple: if you don’t want to be angered when your candidates are perceived as less than brilliant, then promote brilliance. Don’t make it your platform to abolish the Department of Education. Don’t claim that opinion supplants fact.
Ultimately, though, there is something far more important at issue than mere politics.
Will Durant, with his wife Ariel, wrote the legendary Story of Civilization. Eleven volumes, over 8,000 pages of discovery that remains today insightful, even-handed and remarkable. And after they finished, they put together The Lessons of History. Written over 40 years ago, in 1968, its perception is as fresh as any news headline you will read.
“Democracy is the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. A cynic remarked that ‘you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.’ However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that ‘you can’t fool all the people all the time,’ but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country.”
This year, indeed only a few months ago, the Federal Trade Commission reached a $100 million settlement with the for-profit DeVry University for fraud, "misleading and exploiting students." It includes paying $51 million in student debt. This is the biggest "for-profit" education fraud case.
Okay, so are you sitting down? No, really, I mean it. I'll wait... Good.
Today, Trump just appointed its dean, Julian Schmoke Jr, to the Department of Education unit that polices fraud in higher education!!
No, really. Honest.
And yes, I know the immediate quip reaction is -- well, sure, he was appointed because he's an expert on fraud in higher education, and so he knows exactly that to look for.
My favorite comment on this is from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who has been very outspoken on the appointment all day. He's laid out the meaning on consequences of it. But his first response was the gem -- "This is a joke, right? Basically akin to nominating influenza to be the Surgeon General."
I got back about an hour ago from the swearing-in ceremony for the new School Board members of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Normally, I don't go to such things -- or know about them -- nor do I suspect most people do. But this was the ceremony for Nick Melvoin, whose campaign I wrote about extensively. And I got a chance to visit there with my friends, the First Parents, Jeff and Martha Melvoin.
He made a very good speech -- and quite different from all the others (which were each nice in their own ways. Nick's speech, though, wasn't filled with thanks, nor generalizations about Our Kids. Rather it was more a policy speech about what was needed in the school district. It was pointed, but very conciliatory, understanding the need for all the members of the board to work in the same direction. But the core of his speech was that it was the needs of the school kids that had to be front and center, not any political agenda. It went over very well, not just with the large crowd, but also the school board, which was on stage, and most of the members could be seen nodding in approval throughout, with occasional applause.
(I also admired that alone among the new board members giving speeches, he not only acknowledged his opponent -- the former School Board president -- but did so in his first sentence, thanking him for all his years of service. This is particularly notable because his opponent was bitter and harshly critical both throughout and even continuing after the election, slamming Nick to the press.)
(I should note that my photos here don't compare to those of his official photographer at the event, the First Mother. But then Martha has an unfair advantage, given that a) she has a real camera, and b) she had been a photographer for the Los Angeles Times.)
More to the point, and above all, the operative issue about the day is that it's now officially official. (I prefer to think that the private ceremony for family held a few days before doesn't count. Rather, that it was just something like having a small, private wedding ceremony before the Big Event, in order to get more presents...) Nick Melvoin is sworn in as a new member of the Los Angeles School Board. Huzzah.
Last week, the Senior class president Peter Butera of Wyoming Area Secondary Center in Exeter, Pennsylvania, went off-script as he gave his Commencement Address (he was also the Valedictorian). When he began to criticize the school administration, however, his microphone was cut, and he was escorted off the stage.
Which brings us again to the Law of Unintended Consequences.
The school administration didn't want the speech heard by those few in attendance. What happened, though, is that Jimmy Kimmel not only brought the 18-year-old onto his TV show last night, which shined a massive Kleig light of attention on the event -- but also gave him a national platform to complete his speech! Far, far beyond those few in attendance.
One quibble: at one point, Kimmel asks the young man what his grade point average was. Butera starts to explain that his school doesn't use traditional letter grades, which brings Kimmel quickly jumping in with a joke about the student trying to weasle out of answer. Unfortunately, he didn't realize that no Valedictorian would try to weasle out of anything about his grades and, more to the point, when making his joke he doesn't hear Butera explaining that instead the school uses a 100-point scale for grading, and he was about to give his score on that level, when Kimmel cut him off. I'm going to make a wild guess -- given that he was Valedictorian -- that his grade score was very high.
That aside, as you'll hear, his speech -- including what he hadn't been allowed to say -- is awfully thoughtful and good.
Last night, I went to the Election Night event for Nick Melvoin, who I've been writing about here for his candidacy to the L.A. school board. First things first -- it was an uphill battle when he announced his candidacy for his first-ever general campaign, and against the sitting school board president. But Nick won. and by a lot, more on that later.
It was a very weird night. I drove over with his dad Jeff, and on the way there Nick's mom Martha called from the headquarters to say that early vote-by mail numbers were in, and that Nick had 60% of that, up by 6,500. But it was clearly very early, around 8:30 PM with polls having closed only a half-hour before, and you can't extrapolate that absentee votes will be the same for those who vote at the polls. Besides which, mail-in-votes tend to only account for 10-15% of the final total at most. Still, it was good to have those votes in your hip pocket.
I have to admit that my favorite part of the evening is that they had food from the nearby Baby Blue's Barbecue. And though I'm not as big a fan of them as their reputation, they're still very good, and BBQ ribs are probably my favorite food. So, whatever happened with the election I knew it was a good night for me. Hey, I have my priorities.
The oddest thing of the night is Steve Zimmer conceded (bitterly, almost Nixonian) at around 9:50, when it looked like only absentee ballots were in. It didn’t make sense. Nick didn’t think he’d likely won until around 1 AM, and even then wasn't sure.
And when I say that the concession was bitter, I mean it was almost at the Nixonian level, and his comments all night (that L.A. Times kept tweeting) were bizarre and continued throughout the evening. almost Nixonian. Things like -- and I'm paraphrasing, but close -- “This is my last race, I’m not running again.” And “I won’t be calling the Melvoin campaign and won’t take a call from them.” It just kept getting stranger and angrier all night. (Just what you want from a president of a school board...)
I have no doubt Steve Zimmer didn't like the criticisms against him. And no doubt thought they were unfair. No one likes being criticized. But then he was as critical and unfair of Melvoin. More so, in fact, because his was the only campaign that stooped to smearing -- not just criticizing platforms, but knowingly ascribing false motivations (that Nick was in the pocket of Trump and Betsy DeVos, when in fact he had worked in the Obama Administration, was endorsed by Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and endorsed by former Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer). So, the Zimmer bitterness seemed ill-proportioned.
I'm sure Zimmer too was upset by how expensive the race was -- but though Melvoin raised the most, Zimmer raised a huge amount, as well. And both had outside groups running their own separate campaigns. In fact, I get the sense that most of the mailers and negatively on both sides came from these outside groups, not the campaigns themselves. From what little I know, both candidates were bothered by it.
The larger point is that while any losing candidate is going to be upset, I think that Steve Zimmer's Nixonian bitterness was understandable, but profoundly myopic with no self-awareness of how much he himself was at the heart of things.
But back to the night.
Late in the evening, a reporter from the local ABC station did a live remote. I was sitting about eight feet away, and just was he finishing his final words...some guy ran on camera and screamed out something incredibly crude (let's just say some of it included Trump's Access Hollywood words from the bus...but worse) and then ran off. When the camera cut, the reporter -- to my surprise, but to his credit, I think -- pounded over to the guy, furious and read him the riot act. The guy didn't seem to care (either because he was drunk or an idiot), and when he wandered off, the reporter pursued him, continuing to tell him off. Even when he came back to his equipment he was still steaming. "I was prepared for someone interrupting, but not that," he said. I tried to placate him, but he was too bothered. I got the sense he was also bothered because he said they couldn't use his piece now online -- but I can't believe they can't just bleep out the deeply crude words, or even just cut the segment two seconds early.
Anyway, as I said, people there were really bewildered by the very-early concession, to the extent of dismissing it. When Nick was asked to make a speech, he put no stock in an early concession saying the only thing that matter was the final vote count.
The biggest oddity of the night though (at least to me) was something I discovered around 1 AM and no one else had noticed – including Nick and his campaign manager, when I told them. And no one had noticed the big monitors around the room were only showing the specific results of the race from the City Clerk's webpage, but not what was as the top of the web page. Only when I decided on a whim to to onto that same page on my mobile phone did I notice it. Usually, one assumes that absentee ballots will make up about 10% of the results, and that’s what everyone presumed there, and so everyone was waaaaaiting all night for all the votes to come in. But I discovered something at the top of the page that broke down where the votes come from – whether at the polling locations or by mail. And it turned out that an amazing 62% of votes came by mail!!! So, when those first results were posted at 8:30 in the evening, and they broke so heavily for Nick, up by 6,500, the race actually was pretty much over. He ended up winning by 8,000 (out of 53,000 cast). He got 57% of the vote, to Zimmer's 43%, which is pretty much a landslide.
Ultimately, that must be why Zimmer conceded so early in the evening. He probably saw how far he was behind and knew (at that point) that about 75% of the vote was in and couldn’t be made up – while everyone at the Melvoin event all thought it was only about 10-15% of the vote. And when it was taking soooo long for votes to come in – that was because most of the votes were actually already in!!!
So, for whatever reason, he did really well with absentee voting by mail. Maybe it’s because those people missed all the mailers, who knows?
There was something else at play here, too, though. In a general election, lots of people vote, have no idea who anyone is for school board, and vote for the person whose credentials are listed as “School board member.” In this runoff election, you don’t get those masses of “general election” people who don’t have a clue who they’re voting for. By comparison, in the runoff, the vote totals were paltry, yet everyone voting knew who they were voting for. And “get of the vote” efforts were critical, which I think the Melvoin campaign did a strong job of, including going after mail-in votes.
And there was one other matter I mentioned to people during the campaign. In the general election, Steve Zimmer got 46% of the vote. That said to me it seemed possible that 54% of the public simply didn't want him back on the school board. Sometimes, people do vote for someone in a runoff who they didn't in a general election, because they like that person but just not as much as they like their first choice. But I don't think that's the case when the person you didn't vote for the first time is the sitting president of the school board. Either you like him and vote for him the first time, or you don't.
Also, the campaigns and mailers probably made at least some difference. Not just convincing people to vote for a candidate or against the opponent, but in some cases I’m sure there were some people who voted the opposite of what a negative or smear was saying. And as much as Zimmer was complaining about negative attacks, it was his campaign that went over the top trying (reprehensibly) to tie Melvoin to Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. And that could have backfired.
I’m sure the Melvoin campaign was helped by endorsements from Barbara Boxer, Obama’s Secretary of Education, Democratic ex-Mayor Villaraigosa, Republican ex-Mayor Riordan, the L.A. Times and L.A. Daily News.
And of course issues mattered, as well. Though to what degree, I have no idea. In large part because there was such odd overlap there. For instance, Nick was was positioned by his opponents as the “charter” candidate. Yet it was just one part of his platform – and Zimmer actually supported some charters, too, he just didn't promote that. In fact, in Melvoin's victory speech -- in which he praised Steve Zimmer's long service to education -- he ONLY spoke about public schools, saying how lucky he was where he grew up, unlike the kids who were unlikely by where they grew up, “which is so unfair and un-American, and we have to fix that and give everyone an equal chance with public education that is so important.” Keep in mind, he said that after he won, not just mouthing words on the campaign trail to win support. It's what he campaigned on for the first -- in public and on his website -- but it wasn't how he was positioned by the other side.
Ultimately, I don’t think any single reason was why Nick Melvoin won. It’s probably a mix of all that --- and probably other things thrown in.
But he did win. And by a LOT.
A year-and-a-half ago, when Nick’s mom told me he was running, I thought it was great. When she said his opponent would be the sitting school board president, I said, wow, that’s going to be an uphill struggle. I thought that even until about 1 AM last night, even when he was ahead. I wasn’t alone. Even he mentioned what an uphill race this was.
So…who knows why Nick won? But he did, and in a landslide.
I'm biased. I've known him since he was a kid. But because I know what a thoughtful, decent, smart, caring guy he is, I'm thrilled for him.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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