Politics & Policy

Bush Mythology

The Left has an unrealistic read on President Bush.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally set to appear as an op-ed in USA Today. According to Ronald Kessler, the op-ed was accepted by USA Today back in July, to run to coincide with the publication of his new book A Matter of Character. The piece, however, wound up not running last week, and was eventually killed by USAT. A spokesman for the paper told The O’Reilly Factor late last week, “Mr. [Brian] Gallagher had questions about the piece that couldn’t be resolved with Mr. Kessler, so we didn’t run the column.”

Ronald Kessler, however, says: “To say that Brian Gallagher, the editor of the editorial page, had questions that I couldn’t resolve is misleading. Gallagher had objections–not questions–that were so obtuse that John Siniff, the Forum editor who had approved the op-ed to run the next day, said he could not understand them. Still hoping he could run the piece, Siniff therefore asked me to speak to Mr. Gallagher directly. When I did so, Gallagher said he did not think the op-ed made a persuasive case that the caricatures of George Bush as a dimwit were wrong. In supporting that claim, he said a favorable quote about how Bush conducted his own research into why kids can’t read from Alexander “Sandy” Kress was suspect because Kress was pro-Bush. As it happens, Kress is a former chair of the Dallas County Democratic party. But Mr. Gallagher’s clear implication was that anyone who has a favorable opinion of Bush is not credible.”

Kessler’s publicist, Sandy Schulz, further explained to NRO: “The ultimate rejection of the piece by Kessler, whose three op-eds on CIA subjects had run unscathed in the past three months, coupled with Gallagher’s point that a quote from a pro-Bush person is not credible, clearly demonstrates the anti-Bush media bias Kessler documents in his book. “

If you believe the media and the recent spate of books about George W. Bush, the president has a short attention span–yet from the day he took office he was obsessed with attacking Iraq. He is a puppet of Dick Cheney or Karl Rove, but he does not listen to anyone’s advice. His decisions are made for him by warring factions within his administration, but he stubbornly clings to his own views. He graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School, but is a dimwit. He appointed Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to two of the most powerful positions in the government, but is an intolerant right-winger.

If the caricatures are conflicting, they are also wrong. For my biography of Bush, I interviewed his close friends going back to Andover and Yale as well as the key players in his administration–White House chief of staff Andrew Card, political guru Karl Rove, national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, counsel Alberto Gonzales, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others. Yet some of the most telling illustrations of what Bush is really like emerged from interviews with people most have never heard of.

Barnett “Sandy” Kress, a lawyer and former Democratic member of the Dallas school board, told me how, when he was only thinking about running for governor, Bush became interested in why so many kids couldn’t read and what could be done about it. Bush asked Kress dozens of questions: What are the best ways to teach reading? What are other states doing? Taking notes on a legal pad, Bush wanted to know who had studied the issue. Kress mentioned six experts in the field.

“People think he shoots from the hip or that he’s not smart,” Kress said. “It baffles me…. He was an incredible student of these issues. He had a voracious appetite for information. He looked into the problem and researched it…. I gave him six names. He called them all. They were as stunned as I was.”

If Kress was amazed, Dr. G. Reid Lyon, a reading expert at the National Institutes of Health, was even more astonished when he answered his phone in Rockville, Maryland, in 1995 and was told the governor of Texas was calling. Bush had heard that Lyon, a research psychologist and former teacher, had studied the reading problem and had found that a faddish approach to teaching kids to read was behind the poor reading scores. Introduced in the 1970s, the whole-language method held that the traditional, phonics-based method of teaching kids to sound out letters–”a” has the sound of “ay” as in “bay,” or “ah” as in cat–is boring. Instead, nutty as it sounds, under the whole-language approach, kids were taught to read by simply giving them books and expecting that they would become so enthralled that they would figure out the words themselves. Essentially, that meant kids were not being taught to read at all.

Today, an unbelievable 40 percent of fourth graders cannot read a simple children’s book. The non-teaching method of whole language is particularly hard on minorities. Nationally, 65 percent of black fourth graders and 59 percent of Hispanic fourth graders cannot read a simple children’s book. Without being able to read even driving directions, they face a lifetime of failure.

Based on Lyons’s advice, Bush developed a way to restore phonics to reading instruction in Texas. The results were dramatic. In 1995, 23 percent of third graders could not read. By 2003, that figure had improved to ten percent, according to state testing figures compiled by Kress, who became Bush’s unpaid education adviser. After additional help for kids who failed, only two percent could not read. The greatest beneficiaries of restoring phonics to reading instruction–which includes work on comprehension, spelling, and actual reading–were minorities.

When Bush became president, he tried to do the same thing nationally through the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the law, local school systems receive federal money for reading programs if they adopt teaching methods that have been scientifically proven to work. Based on NIH-supported research on more than 44,000 students, that method is phonics.

Despite the law, because of foot dragging by teachers and their unions which resist change, sixty percent of school systems continue to teach whole language. Rather than use a method that works, New York City stubbornly clings in the vast majority of its schools to what is essentially a whole-language approach, turning out hundreds of thousands of illiterate kids over the years. Yet I found that the toniest private schools in New York–the Collegiate, Brearley, St. David’s, and Dalton schools–all use phonics to teach reading.

“Of course we teach phonics,” Beth Tashlik, the head of the Collegiate School’s lower school, told me. “You can’t teach reading without it.”

Ironically, unless they are wealthy and send their kids to private schools, New York liberals who most oppose Bush are the ones whose kids cannot read because their own public schools resist Bush’s efforts to restore phonics to reading instruction.

Unlike Bush, the media rarely dig into the subject.

“Nobody wants to write the real story of why kids can’t read,” Margaret Spellings, Bush’s domestic policy adviser, told me. “I don’t know if it’s too hard.” Indeed, caricatures are far easier to create.

“It is amazing to me that Bush is thought of as a right winger who doesn’t care about minorities,” Lyon said. “He saved so many of their lives.”

Ronald Kessler, a former Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reporter, is the author of A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush. For NRO’s Q&A with Kessler re: A Matter of Character, click here.

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