Five Best Friday Columns

Fact checking the MLK Jr. memorial, and the anniversary of women's suffrage

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Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff on funding public education  New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other philanthropists this month donated $1.5 million to reinstate exams that had been victim to budget cuts. "It is disgraceful that essential components of our public education system now depend on the charitable impulses of wealthy citizens," write Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff in The New York Times. Parent-teacher organizations, foundations, and businesses contribute billions of dollars to replace cuts made by struggling school districts, they write, but still, some burden is shifted to the students themselves. "In Medina, Ohio," the authors cite as an example, "it now costs $660 for a child to play on a high school sports team, $200 to join the concert choir and $50 to act in the school play." Public education was founded on a philosophy of equality of opportunity for the rich and poor, but we are seeing that opportunity diminished. With teacher salaries and jobs already cut, school hours are being reduced, and the cuts are disproportionately affecting the poor. "Not every state will have a Bloomberg to step in, not every school has a P.T.A. with the resources to help out, and not every child has a family that can afford fees," they write. "Depending on private contributions is inequitable and unconstitutional; public financing should fully support public education." Most state constitutions do ban things like fees for mandatory textbooks and programs, and courts have struck down policies that instate them, but this litigation is slow and costly. Politicians must be accountable for upholding the laws and the principles of public education in the first place.

Peggy Noonan on Rick Perry's temperament  This week, Rick Perry surged to the front of the pack of contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. "Mr. Perry's primary virtue for the Republican base is that he means it," writes Peggy Noonan of his conservative platform. "In this of course he's the anti-Romney." And unlike Michele Bachmann, he has executive experience to back up his principles. "His primary flaw appears to be a chesty, quick-draw machismo that might be right for an angry base but wrong for an antsy country," Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal. "Americans want a president who feels their anger without himself walking around enraged." Perry has made well-publicized gaffes, as when he suggested Ben Bernanke might be treasonous or when he contemplated Texan secession. Noonan sees these mistakes as more than slip-ups. They indicate "lack of reflection, a lack of gravitas, a carelessness," she says. "Why does this kind of thing matter?" she asks. "Because presidential temperament has never been more important. We can't escape presidents now, they're all over every screen, and they set a tone." In 1980, the nation took a leap with Ronald Reagan. They faced similarly large economic problems. Reagan would be the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge. Jimmy Carter tried to paint him as "an angry cowboy with crazy ideas," a charge Americans took seriously. But when the nation heard Reagan speak and judged him to be a "benign and serious person," they took a chance on him. Rick Perry should keep this in mind before he speaks. "If there is a deeper, more reflective person there he'd best show it, sooner rather than later. This is the point where out of the corner of their eye, people are starting to get impressions," she writes.

Jamie Stiehm on misattributing a quote to MLK Jr.  The newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall includes numerous quotes from the civil rights leader, but one of them is misattributed to him, writes Jamie Stiehm in The Washington Post. The quote is Barack Obama's favorite, and one the president attributes to King often. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." But King borrowed the words from Theodore Parker, a Boston abolitionist and minister who died just before the Civil War. King saw Parker as an ally during America's "first civil rights movement," Stiehm writes. In the 1850s, Parker participated in a network of anti-slavery activists using nonviolent civil disobedience to affect profound social change. It was the tradition upon which King built his own movement in his own time. "King honored Parker's original thought by breathing new life and meaning into his 19th-century words. There is no question of plagiarism; King made no secret of the source." We should not omit Parker's name from the memorial, writes Stiehm, not only out of fairness, but because "the Parker-King connection across generations and color lines should be celebrated as an example of how an unfinished life work can be carried on." Just as King was assassinated before he could see through the movement he symbolized, Parker died on the eve of the Civil War, never living to see Emancipation. "Perhaps someday soon history's arc may bend and give Parker a little justice of his own," Stiehm concludes.

David Remnick on Obama's doctrine  In April, just after the United States lobbied NATO to shield Libyan rebels from slaughter, The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza wrote a long piece analyzing Barack Obama's foreign policy. The last paragraph "captured the imagination of many readers," writes The New Yorker editor David Remnick. Lizza wrote: "Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President's actions in Libya as 'leading from behind.'" In that phrase, Lizza continued, are two beliefs: "that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength." The Republican National Committee and every "Murdoch-owned" news outlet seized on the phrase "leading from behind" as evidence of Obama's weak leadership. "Six months later, as Libyans rejoice at the prospect of a world without an unhinged despot, many of Obama’s critics still view a President who rid the world of Osama bin Laden...  and helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi ... as supinely selling out American power." The war dragged on past America's attention span, but the slow Libyan-led revolution allowed Libyans to create their own institutions, their own opposition newspapers and NGOs, which hopefully portends a stable path toward success for the country, though the future is unclear. More unclear is how the Libyan experience informs our actions in Syria, which is more complicated. Libya had few allies in the region, but Syria's alliance with Iran complicates things. Obama, thus, is taking a more cautious path. "The trouble with so much of the conservative critique of Obama's foreign policy is that it cares less about outcomes than about the assertion of America's power and the affirmation of its glory," Remnick writes. "Obama would not be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don't need to trumpet your victory."

Ellen Goodman on the anniversary of women's suffrage  This Aug. 26 marks the 91st anniversary of women's suffrage. But Ellen Goodman sees little to celebrate on the woman's front in this year's news cycle. "Our one-woman panel of judges prepares in good spirit to hand out the Equal Rites Awards to all those who did their best to do the worst for women in the past year," she cheekily writes in The Boston Globe. "Let us begin with that crowd pleaser, the Raging Hormonal Imbalance Award," she writes. She awards it to advertisers who jokingly promoted milk to men as a respite from angry premenstrual women. "For this failed campaign we award them a monthly dose of lactose-intolerance." Among the several "awards" she doles out is "The Patriarch of This (Or Any Other) Year" award which "goes posthumously to Osama bin Laden... Bin Laden espoused and enforced the 'purity' of all women except the ones found in the stash of porn videos at his hideout. To the followers of this X-rated terrorist, we send a burqa suitable for covering hypocrisy." She continues, "Now for the Backwards Trailblazer Citation. This goes to Frederick County Commissioner Paul Smith, who justified slashing Head Start funds in his Maryland county because 'mothers should be home with small children.' We send all the de-funded children to his house for day care." Finally, she awards the"Stand By Your Man Prize" to Michele Bachmann, who studied tax law because the Bible dictates that wives must submit to their husbands. "The facts-orexic Michele insists that 'submission' means 'respect.' Right, and obedience is a synonym for equality. And with that curtain call we end this year. . . unbowed."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.