by Steve Chapman
the Cold War, the story goes, a Soviet general was invited by an American general to a parade showing off our awesome destructive power. Soldiers and sailors marched past, tanks and missiles rolled by, and finally came a group of middle-aged men and women in business attire. "Who are they?" asked the Soviet general. "Ah," replied his host, "they're the most dangerous weapon of all. They're the lawyers."
Even though Dan Quayle is an attorney and an attorney's husband, he shares that view. While others attribute recent school shootings to guns, violence in entertainment, or bad parenting, the former vice president blames "legal aristocracy." Lawyers, he said in a recent speech that got him nationwide press attention, have "undermined parental authority over children, weakened discipline in the schools, and obstructed the moral education of the young."
The address to the Commonwealth Club of California skillfully combined two familiar conservative themes -- resentment of lawyers (particularly those working for the American Civil Liberties Union) and yearning for the way things used to be. Add in its calculated appeal to religious conservatives, and this sounds like a message he will be repeating frequently on the presidential campaign trail.
Quayle normally gets noticed only when he makes an obvious blunder, like mispelling a word or getting tangled up in his rhetoric, confirming the widespread assumption that he is dumber than a sack of hammers. But the problem on display in this speech was not so much lack of intelligence as disconnection from reality.
Take this claim, for example: "Every baby boomer parent has heard it from their children at one time or another: 'I can sue you.' " Oh, really? I'm a baby boomer and the father of three, and I don't delude myself that parent-child relations are more harmonious in my household than in those of my neighbors. But that's a phrase I've never heard any of my headstrong children utter. And I think I'm only slightly more likely to hear it than I am to hear one of them say, "My allowance is too big."
Quayle blames school disorder on the bizarre notion that students have rights that adults are bound to respect. In the old days, students did as they were told, or else. No more. "There's some talk about bringing corporal punishment to the schools," he says. "There would be a lawsuit before the rule was ever enforced."
To which the only reply is: On what planet? Corporal punishment, a lawyerly euphemism for hitting, is still widely practiced in American schools. No fewer than 23 states still authorize it as a means of discipline, and it should cheer Quayle up to learn that nearly half a million students are paddled every year.
He insists that fear of litigation has deterred school authorities from exercising control. Maybe he should visit Chicago, whose public schools were once known as the worst in the nation but have been on the rise. Between the 1995-96 school year and the 1997-98 term, the number of student expulsions rose more than eightfold. Asked if worries about lawsuits weaken discipline, Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas does not mince words. "No," he says. For that matter, he says, such lawsuits are rare.
Then there is moral education, which Quayle says schools are no longer allowed to provide because ACLU fanatics have chased God out of the classroom. He tells of a newspaper editor who had campaigned to remove the Ten Commandments from a school and then complained about an epidemic of cheating and theft. To which Christian activist Charles Colson replied, with heavy irony, "You ought to put a sign on the wall telling kids not to steal."
But that would violate the separation of church and state, right? Wrong. There is nothing wrong with extolling students to observe such precepts as "don't kill" and "don't steal." Schools do that all the time. Only the stuff in the Commandments about observing the Sabbath and not worshipping other Gods is off-limits. It's possible to promote morality without evangelizing for religion -- just as it's possible to evangelize for religion without promoting morality.
The crowning moment came when Quayle sounded a populist chord, insisting that the legal aristocrats don't worry about social disorder because "they live in gated communities and send their children to expensive private schools." This from a man who lived in the cosseted vice presidential residence, the ultimate gated existence -- and whose three children attended exclusive private schools in Washington.
Inconvenient realities like that found no place in his remarks. For years, his defenders have said that his detractors underestimate Quayle's intelligence. After this speech, it will be hard to overstate his mendacity.
May 31, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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