WASHINGTON -- Yesterday was one of those occasions White House image-makers love.
They gave their boss the hated task of reading a prepared speech from TelePrompTers but put him into one of his favorite places to do it -- a small classroom.
Walking casually around the room as he spoke, President Bush gently exhorted 27 rapt eighth-graders -- and pupils watching his televised performance throughout the nation -- to take control of their own destinies by making sure they get the most out of school.
The effect was part bully pulpit, part campaign ad. Mr. Bush was simultaneously employing the power of his office in the drive to improve American education and making another bid to focus voter attention on what he considers the centerpiece of his domestic agenda.
"I'm asking you to put two and two together," Mr. Bush told Cynthia Mosteller's history class at Alice Deal Junior High School in Northwest Washington. "Make the connection
between the homework you do tonight, the tests you take tomorrow, and where you'll be five, 15, even 50 years from now. . . . You're in control."
Asking the cameras to zoom in for a close-up of yesterday's USA Today headlines on the bad "report card" issued Monday by a national panel evaluating the nation's schools, Mr. Bush said it was up to the students themselves to make a difference.
"Don't say, 'School is boring,' and blame it on your teachers," he continued. "Make your teachers work hard. . . . Tell them that you're here to learn, and block out the kids who think it's not cool to be smart."
In one of the few ad-libbed lines of his 10-minute appearance, the president added: "I can't understand for the life of me what's so great about being stupid."
Mr. Bush's speech was part of a broader effort to promote the goals of America 2000, a program that calls for vast improvements in student learning levels by the end of the century. With little new money to put toward the cause, the Bush administration has focused on encouraging students, parents and communities to pressure their schools to meet higher standards.
The speech was also part of a two-month crusade Mr. Bush undertook after Labor Day to highlight his education policies as a response to critics who say he is not much interested or involved in domestic issues.