In recent days, a consensus has developed among the Obama campaign and commentators in the press that John McCain has decided to lie his way to the White House. Exhibit A in this new consensus is McCain’s ad, released last week, claiming that Barack Obama’s “one accomplishment” in the field of education was “legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergartners.”
Within moments of the ad’s appearance, the Obama campaign called it “shameful and downright perverse.” The legislation in question, a bill in the Illinois State Senate that was supported but not sponsored by Obama, was, according to Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton, “written to protect young children from sexual predators” and had nothing to do with comprehensive sex education for kindergartners. In a stinging final shot, Burton added, “Last week, John McCain told Time magazine he couldn’t define what honor was. Now we know why.”
Newspaper, magazine, and television commentators quickly piled on. “The kindergarten ad flat-out lies,” wrote the New York Times, arguing that “at most, kindergarteners were to be taught the dangers of sexual predators.” The Washington Post wrote that “McCain’s ‘Education’ Spot is Dishonest, Deceptive.” And in a column in The Hill, the influential blogger Josh Marshall called the sex-education spot “a rancid, race-baiting ad based on [a] lie. Willie Horton looks mild by comparison.”
The condemnation has been so widespread that the Obama campaign has begun to sense success in placing the “McCain-is-a-liar” storyline in the press. But before accepting the story at face value, it might first be a good idea to examine the bill in question, look at the statements made by its supporters at the time it was introduced, talk to its sponsors today (at least the ones who will consent to speak), and find answers to a few basic questions. What were the bill’s provisions? Why was it written? Was it really just, or even mostly, about inappropriate advances? And the bottom-line question: Is McCain’s characterization of it unfair? 21st-CENTURY SEX EDUCATION The bill in question was Senate Bill 99, introduced in the Senate in February 2003. Its broad purpose was to change and update portions of Illinois’s existing laws concerning sex education. (The text of the bill is here, and everyone interested in the issue should take a look at it.)
When the bill was introduced, a coalition of groups including the Illinois Public Health Association, the Illinois State Medical Society, the Cook County Department of Public Health, the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council and others issued a press release headlined “Coalition of Legislators, Physicians and Organizations Bring Illinois Into the 21st Century with Omnibus Healthcare Package.” It was a three-part campaign; Senate Bill 99, covering “medically accurate sex education,” was the first part, with two other bills addressing “funding for family planning services for women in need” and “contraceptive equity in health insurance.”
According to the press release, Senate Bill 99 required that “if a public school teaches sex education, family life education, and comprehensive health education courses, all materials and instruction must be medically and factually accurate.” The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Carol Ronen, was quoted saying, “It teaches students about the advantages of abstinence, while also giving them the realistic information they need about the prevention of an unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.” The release contained no mention of sexual predators or inappropriate touching.