Habla Usted English, Mrs. Obama?

Posted: Feb 22, 2008 12:01 AM

For a long time, there has been a controversy brewing in America over whether or not to make English our official language. The arguments in favor seem overwhelmingly compelling to me. Doesn’t it seem absurd that when so many people living in foreign countries see obvious advantages in learning English, that millions of those who actually reside here, who make their livings and raise their children here, and who vote in our elections, can neither read nor write the language?

Yet, most Democratic politicians and even some Republicans balk at the idea. All this time, I have assumed that their objection was predicated on their fear of being labeled racists, and worried that it might cost them votes in future elections. But I am beginning to wonder if their reluctance isn’t based on the fact that for so many of those in public life, basic English skills are simply beyond them.

For instance, have you ever listened to Robert Byrd give a speech on the floor of the Senate? Have you ever heard Barbara Boxer try to answer a reporter’s questions? You would think these people had just been introduced to our mother tongue last Thursday.

Even though it pains me as a conservative to say so, we’re not always any better than the liberals. Take President Bush. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but how many times over the past seven years has some White House spokesman had to step forward after the president has given an address to explain what the Commander in Chief really meant to say? The president, whichever party we belong to, speaks for all of us. In Bush’s case, though, as often as not, he misspeaks for all of us.

Now I’m not as hard-nosed as some people when it comes to flip-flopping on the issues, so long as the politician winds up agreeing with my position. But when you realize how much talking these people do every hour of every day, is clarity too much to expect? I don’t expect them to be Churchillian, combining wit and vocal grandeur in a way that suggests that the free world’s gain was the theatre’s loss. But, if practice makes perfect, is it too much to ask that a politician be at least as clear-speaking as, say, a Valley girl?

And when I refer to a politician, I’m also including their wives and husbands, if those spouses are going to hit the campaign trail and speak on their behalf.

Which brings us to Michelle Obama. Recently, in Wisconsin, while addressing an audience of her husband’s disciples, she said: “What we have learned over this year is that hope is making a comeback…and let me tell you, for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country. And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I made of this is that she’s proud of America for the first time, perhaps the only time, because people are hungry for a change. Funny, because I knew the country was pretty darn hungry when Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, but Mrs. Obama was only a teenager at the time, so maybe that doesn’t count. How about when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush in 1992? Didn’t that make her proud? Then there was 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore because, I assume, people were hungry -- perhaps downright ravenous -- for change.

But as I soon discovered, I’d been wasting my time trying to figure out when change didn’t really mean change because Obama’s people were soon e-mailing reporters the following clarification: “What she meant is that she’s really proud at this moment because for the first time in a long time, thousands of Americans who’ve never participated in politics before are coming out in record numbers to build a grass-roots movement for change.”

That’s the best these high-priced spinners could come up with? Frankly, if that’s what she meant to say, I’m pretty certain that this rich, privileged Princeton graduate would have said that. To which I would have replied: “What about Ross Perot’s grass-roots movement? What about Howard Dean’s or Ralph Nader’s? Or even Ron Paul’s? How is it that none of those movements made Michelle Obama swell up with pride at being an American?”

To me, though, the really scary thing is that when she made her statement, thousands of people in the audience gave her a rousing ovation. Apparently, all those folks in Madison, Wisconsin, were finally proud to be Americans, too.