On Monday, US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona beclowned himself. While touting his Department’s lackluster record to the Western Governors’ Association, Cardona mused, “I think it was President Reagan who said, ‘We’re from the government. We’re here to help.’”
Of course, Reagan’s actual quote was, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Reagan’s point was that Washington can be so inept “that instead of helping, it often causes harm.”
It doesn’t really matter whether Cardona is historically illiterate or intent on trolling the Republican governors in his audience. Either way, this was the US Secretary of Education trying to score a political point by misquoting an iconic Republican president so as to invert his plain meaning. This would be like Ted Cruz saying, “I think it was Barack Obama who said, ‘You didn’t build that bridge . . . so you shouldn’t get to use it.’” Or, “I think it was FDR who said, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear of school choice.’”
Given that Cardona has presided over historically awful US history and civics performance on the “nation’s report card,” one might think his televised, politicized exercise in historical fiction would be seen as troubling (whether intentional or no). And yet his remarks went unnoted by The Washington Post, New York Times, NPR, and Education Week.
The double-standard is striking. Just a few years ago, when Betsy DeVos was Secretary of Education, the smallest of missteps (real or imagined) yielded overwrought coverage at these same outlets. Asked about gun control at her confirmation hearing, DeVos’s assertion that gun-related issues were very different in rural schools and urban centers gave rise to endless media mockery about “grizzly bears.” When she supervised a careful rule-making process that restored respect for civil liberties to Title IX campus enforcement, the coverage read like a progressive talking points memo. Just imagine if DeVos had misquoted FDR or Obama to make a point.
The kind of disparity isn’t just anecdotal, it’s systematic. An analysis of major newspaper coverage of DeVos and Cardona’s first 100 days showed that DeVos attracted much more coverage (and much more negative coverage) than Cardona, even though he was calling for hundreds of billions in emergency aid for shuttered schools and colleges while DeVos was still staffing up.
When President Biden nominated Cardona for Secretary of Education, I urged extending Cardona the benefit of the doubt that was never granted to DeVos. I wrote:
Cardona seems like a good guy and a committed educator. Quite appropriately, he’s met with a genial, respectful reception (pretty much the opposite of the one accorded Betsy DeVos, who was subjected to blistering attacks before she’d said a word). Now, a churlish observer might ask whether Cardona, with a background as an assistant superintendent in a small system and with a short tenure running a small state bureaucracy, has the management experience to run the U.S. Department of Education. . . . Indeed, relying on the DeVos standard, a churlish observer might ask whether Cardona ought to be held responsible for the abysmal performance of Connecticut’s urban school systems (true, he’s only been state chief for a year and change, which makes it ridiculous to blame him for New Haven’s longtime struggles; but DeVos never held a position of authority in Michigan and yet was routinely faulted for the troubled plight of Detroit’s schools).
Well, it’s now time to be churlish. While in office, Cardona has aggressively carried the water for the administration’s unconstitutional $500 billion student loan “forgiveness” scheme, approached that same scheme in a shambolic manner that the Government Accounting Office found rife with possibilities for fraud, been notably quiescent as $200 billion in federal pandemic aid failed to deliver any obvious benefits, mounted an assault on charter schools, mutely watched as chronic absenteeism has skyrocketed, and repeatedly stonewalled Congressional efforts to provide appropriate oversight.
Yet, Cardona has received little scrutiny for any of this. Indeed, what little coverage there’s been has mostly featured the occasional puff piece (as with POLITICO’s recent entry, “Cardona wants a second term of his own.”) Selective coverage and slanted accounts have helped poison the national discourse and sow well-deserved distrust of journalists and journalism.
After all, I think it was Cardona who said, “They’re from the legacy media. They’re here to help me.”
Frederick M. Hess is a senior fellow and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues.
Reprinted with Permission from AEI.org – By Frederick M. Hess