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BUSH RESTORED! Evan Thomas told an astonishing tale—then gave us our leader restored: // link // print // previous // next //

CAN’T GET IT OUT OF THEIR HEAD: Seven years after our national breakdown, the Washington Post still seems obsessed on the subject of oral sex. This morning, Laura Sessions Stepp reports a major new study on teen-age sexual conduct. The headline screams its warning:
Oral Sex Prevalent Among Teens
Majority of Those 15-19 Engage in Practice, U.S. Study Finds
On-line, a different headline also zeroes in on the “practice.” Just for the record, here’s the opening paragraph:
STEPP (9/16/05): Slightly more than half of American teenagers ages 15 to 19 have engaged in oral sex, with females and males reporting similar levels of experience, according to the most comprehensive national survey of sexual behaviors ever released by the federal government.
So there you have it. Slightly more than half of teens have engaged in oral sex!

Unfortunately, Stepp omits another finding: Slightly more than half of teens have engaged in vaginal intercourse! In fact, the numbers for oral sex and intercourse are almost identical—but Stepp’s report never says so. By contrast, the New York Times’ Tamar Lewin reviews this report in a non-kooky way. She actually includes some key information:

LEWIN (9/16/05): The proportion of teenagers who have given or received oral sex was slightly higher than the proportion who have had intercourse, the survey found, with 55 percent of the boys and 54 percent of the girls having given or received oral sex, while 49 percent of the boys and 53 percent of the girls have had intercourse.
Let’s make those data slightly simpler: Among teen-aged girls, 54 percent have had oral sex, while 53 percent have had intercourse. But you never learn that from Stepp’s report, which offers “expert” speculation about the way abstinence-only sex ed programs have lured teen-agers to oral sex. Claire Brindis of UCSF is one of Stepp’s experts:
STEPP: Many teenagers have fully accepted the idea that postponing intercourse is a good thing to do, Brindis said. When they weigh the advantages and disadvantages of intercourse vs. other forms of sex, they decide that they are far more at risk with intercourse, because of possible pregnancy and the greater risk of infection. Teens also consider oral sex more acceptable in their peer group than vaginal sex.
In fact, the study shows that a fairly small percentage of teens have engaged in oral sex but not intercourse. (The study doesn’t say why they’ve done this.) According to a chart accompanying the New York Times piece, the number seems to be slightly less than ten percent among girls.

Stepp’s article illustrates a key point; you can write a weirdly misleading report while making nothing but accurate statements. Is “Oral Sex Prevalent Among Teens?” Yes—but you never learn in Stepp’s report that intercourse is equally prevalent! But then, the Post got this “practice” into its head during its headlong pursuit of Bill Clinton, a fury it then extended to Gore. Eventually, a witless man took us into Iraq because of this paper’s cock-eyed obsession. But sshhhh! Keep that fact to yourselves! It’s one of this era’s most significant facts. But career liberals know not to tattle.

SINGAPORE SONGS SUNG BLUE: Did Singapore really “eat our lunch” in the most recent TIMSS report? In today’s column, Tom Friedman says yes, starting with his gloomy headline:

FRIEDMAN (9/16/05): Being a tiny city-state of four million, Singapore is obsessed with nurturing every ounce of talent of every single citizen. That is why, although its fourth and eighth graders already score at the top of the Timss international math and science tests, Singapore has been introducing more innovations into schools. Its government understands that in a flattening world, where more and more jobs can go anywhere, it's not enough to just stay ahead of its neighbors. It has to stay ahead of everyone—including us.
Indeed, Singapore did score at the top of the world in the most recent TIMSS report. And yes, the US may have things to gain from studying their instructional methods. But how poorly did the US fare in that study? For the record, here’s the account from the New York Times, Karen Arenson reporting:
ARENSON (12/15/04): The survey, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or Timss, found that Singapore students topped the math and science scoring in both the fourth and eighth grades last year.

Of the 45 countries ranked in the eighth-grade survey, the United States was 15th in math and 9th in science; among 25 countries in the fourth-grade rankings, it was 12th in math and 6th in science.

Clearly, Singapore scored “ahead of us.” But, in turn, we scored ahead of most of the other countries.

We call attention to Friedman’s column because of something he doesn’t consider; he doesn’t consider the special conditions that obtain in a nation like ours, with all the “low-income kids” we read about in that latest new study (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/29/05). When Friedman reviews those nation-by-nation TIMSS scores, he is looking at average scores, scores which are theoretically derived from participating nations’ entire populations. But the US, unlike some other countries, has large numbers of immigrant kids who may not speak English as their first language, and it has a large African-American population in which literacy was deliberately reduced through centuries of relentless state action. Two points derive from these facts.

First, middle-class American kids may be doing roughly as well as those kids in Singapore. If this is true, our pedagogical system may be working just as well (among such kids) as theirs. It’s important to keep this point in mind when US scores are compared to those from other countries. For our review of a scribe who discovered a miracle—in a middle-class country—see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/24/05.

Second, Friedman ignores the educational disaster transpiring among our “low-income” kids. Let’s recall the results of that latest new study—a study we expect to return to next week:

HERBERT (8/29/05): An education task force established by the center and the institute noted the following:

''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting. By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students...”

After three years in school, they’re three years behind! Techniques we observe in Singapore’s schools may not be helpful for these deserving kids. These kids deserve to be studied closely so we can explain (and correct) their “failure to thrive.” But we may not find equivalent groups in Singapore. Although he probably doesn’t realize it, Friedman is actually looking for ways to better educate our “non-poor” kids. As he examines the Singapore model, he’s leaving “low-income” kids behind.

But then, from the day they enter school, these lovely “low-income” American kids encounter a colonial educational model. They haven’t gained those “important school readiness skills,” but they’re likely to meet educational programs and materials designed for kids who have gained such skills. From that day on, nothing is ever designed for them or their needs—and they fall farther and farther behind. When Friedman goes spanning the globe for techniques, their unique and disastrous situation doesn’t likely enter his mind.

Recently, we saw the poor on the streets of New Orleans. But children of the urban poor have long been stranded in swamped, malfunctioning schools—and the answers to their problems and needs won’t likely turn up over there.

BUSH RESTORED: Typically, we argue against attempting to say what public officials are “really like.” And no, at this point, we don’t really know how to assess the way different levels of government bungled the New Orleans disaster. But we were disgusted by the way George Bush refused to return from his fucking vacation, and by the way he wouldn’t stop joking when he finally dragged himself down to New Orleans. With that in mind, we were mightily struck by Evan Thomas’ report in the current Newsweek. Here is his paragraph 3, a passage that defies comprehension:

THOMAS (pgh 3): The reality, say several aides who did not wish to be quoted because it might displease the president, did not really sink in until Thursday night. Some White House staffers were watching the evening news and thought the president needed to see the horrific reports coming out of New Orleans. Counselor Bartlett made up a DVD of the newscasts so Bush could see them in their entirety as he flew down to the Gulf Coast the next morning on Air Force One.
As usual, this passage doesn’t quite make sense. In context, Thomas seems to be talking about Bush, who “knew the storm and its consequences had been bad; but he didn't quite realize how bad” (end of pgh 2). But when Thomas says that “the reality” finally sank in Thursday night, he only describes a group of Bush aides watching the horrific reports on TV. He doesn’t suggest that Bush himself watched these scenes—to the contrary, he shows us Bush’s number-one aide hatching a plot to make him watch later. At any rate, if we can believe what Thomas has written, Bush still didn’t know, on Thursday night (9/1), how bad the situation was in New Orleans. Four days into this appalling situation, his aides felt they had to create a DVD to make the president watch what was happening. According to Thomas, they hoped that Bush would watch the DVD during his plane ride the next day.

It would be hard to overstate how remarkable that passage really is. Four days into the New Orleans disaster, President Bush still didn’t realize how bad the situation was? All over America, citizens were appalled, dismayed, disgusted by what they were seeing on their TVs. But Bush still didn’t know about this? His aides were still looking for ways to inform him? It’s hard to know what to make of such a claim. According to the Thomas narration, Bush might find out on Friday morning (Morning 5)—if his aides get lucky!

Realistic question: Was there any American, except the president, who was still so clueless on Thursday night? Who hadn’t felt disbelief and disgust about what was happening (and not happening) in New Orleans? But just for the record, if the reality sank in for Bush’s aides Thursday night, it may not have sunk in for Bush himself, even during his ride to New Orleans. Thomas seems to know not to say so, but that was the trip where Bush turned off the world with his jokes about fixing up Trent Lott’s house—and about how he used to get soooo drunk when he would come to New Orleans to party. Did “the reality” sink in from that DVD? For Bush, it seems it did not.

But that is where the endless miracle of modern journalism enters. In fairness, Thomas does say, in paragraph 4, that Bush’s disinterest was “perplexing and troubling:”

THOMAS (pgh 4): How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.
But don’t worry! By paragraph 7, we would get Bush Restored! In fact, Bush flew off to New Orleans cracking jokes, impressing observers with his clueless demeanor. But by paragraph 7, Thomas gives back our Caring Leader. Note the way the most basic facts have been completely reinvented:
THOMAS (pgh 7): The war in Iraq was a failure of intelligence. The government's response to Katrina—like the failure to anticipate that terrorists would fly into buildings on 9/11—was a failure of imagination. On Tuesday, within 24 hours of the storm's arrival, Bush needed to be able to imagine the scenes of disorder and misery that would, two days later, shock him when he watched the evening news. He needed to be able to see that New Orleans would spin into violence and chaos very quickly if the U.S. government did not take charge—and, in effect, send in the cavalry, which in this case probably meant sending in a brigade from a combat outfit, like the 82nd Airborne, based in Fort Bragg, N.C., and prepared to deploy anywhere in the world in 18 hours.
Say what? Thomas now tells us that Bush was “shocked” by “the scenes of disorder and misery” when he watched the news Thursday night. Of course, four paragraphs earlier, Thomas has said that Bush didn’t watch the news that night—that his aides still felt they had to trick him into watching scenes from the disaster. But so it often goes for Bush when scribes like Thomas report his weird conduct. In paragraph 3, Thomas says that, as late as Thursday night, Bush still wasn’t watching the news—that his aides were looking for way to make him. Four paragraphs later, though, all is forgotten. We get the image of a caring leader, a man who is “shocked” as he watches the news—the news that he didn’t really watch.

On Tuesday, “Bush needed to be able to imagine the scenes of disorder and misery” that would soon emerge? In fact, Bush needed to care enough to sit his ass down to watch the scenes all Americans were watching. But when he hadn’t done so by Thursday night, Thomas came up with the perfect solution. He simply told us that Bush had watched—and he said that Bush was “shocked” by the troubling scenes he didn’t really observe! And then, he omitted those dumb, dumb-ass jokes—the ones Bush would tell the next morning.

Thomas appears on Imus quite often; we’ve been surprised, in the past year, by his obvious, yawning indifference to most of the stories he’s asked to discuss. But here, he gave us Bush Restored, pretending that Bush watched the news on TV—and pretending he was “shocked” when he did.

Scribes have slammed Bush in recent weeks. But for the laziest, most comfortable scribes, it will soon seem like a natural thing to give us our leader restored.

STILL COMING: When Bush cracked inappropriate jokes during Campaign 2000, the corps didn’t tattle—till later.