INDIANAPOLIS—Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole called Monday for an end to most bilingual education and denounced new standards for teaching history as he sought to cast his presidential bid as a defense of the nation’s cultural heritage against divisive assaults by Washington and “intellectual elites.”
Attacking what he called the “embarrassed-to-be-American crowd,” the leading candidate for the GOP presidential nomination told the 77th national convention of the American Legion that “if we are to return this country to greatness, we must do more than restore America’s defenses.”
“We must return as a people to the original concept of what it means to be an American,” Dole said, adding that the goal required adherence to a common language and a long-agreed-upon version of the nation’s history.
Dole’s proposal to end most bilingual classes, if carried out, could uproot policies in most states under which children who have limited fluency in English are taught at least part of the day in their native language.
The impact would be particularly profound in California, with its growing population of Latinos and Asian Americans, home to roughly a third of the non-English-speaking schoolchildren in the nation. California schools spend an estimated $400 million a year to teach 1.2 million children in languages other than English. Nearly half of those students attend schools in Los Angeles.
State education officials recently revised their bilingual education policies, which had required teaching many students in languages other than English. The new policies give districts more flexibility. Dole’s plan, however, would go much further, eliminating bilingual education altogether except for language classes designed to help immigrants and their families learn English. He would ban courses aimed at “instilling ethnic pride, or as a therapy for low self-esteem” or inspired by “elitist guilt,” Dole said.
In addition to denouncing bilingual classes, Dole also argued that English should be proclaimed the nation’s official language.
As for the proposed national history standards, a set of voluntary guidelines for teaching history in primary and secondary schools, Dole complained that they suggest “concentrating on some of our worst moments,” such as McCarthyism and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, without even describing George Washington as the nation’s first President. The guidelines have been widely criticized since being released late last year by the UCLA National Center for History. They are being revised, and a new set is expected this month.
Dole’s speech here on values, together with another talk scheduled today in Chicago, in which aides have said he will espouse pro-growth economic policies, represent a double-barreled effort by the Kansan to provide his candidacy with the ideological definition and emotional inspiration critics contend it has lacked.
His emphasis on values, both in this speech and in earlier attacks on Hollywood, hark back to the GOP strategy in 1988, when then-Vice President George Bush attacked Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis on a series of values issues, most memorably Dukakis’ opposition to a proposed state law requiring teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance.
But in the view of many analysts, values have taken on even greater importance in the early stages of the presidential campaign. Among Republican voters in particular, “there is a fear that the so-called ‘American way of life’ is drifting away,” said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster and consultant to the presidential campaign of Dole’s best-financed rival, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. This fear, according to Luntz, has increased anxiety among some voters about the rising tide of immigration and its effect on national culture and values.
Similar assaults have been key to the strategies of Gov. Pete Wilson and another Dole rival, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who has objected strenuously to the alleged lack of respect for American institutions.
“People are concerned about our social fabric, and they believe it’s unraveling,” said Fred Steeper, who shares in the polling responsibilities for Wilson’s presidential campaign. “One way to bring things together is to stop illegal immigration and also to insist that those people who come in legally learn the English language.”
In his rendition of this increasingly central theme, Dole told his fellow legionnaires that adherence to a common language, history and code of values has held Americans together through the years despite their racial and ethnic diversity. Now, though, he warned, this unity is threatened by the “false theories” of the “embarrassed-to-be-American crowd,” particularly in the arena of public education.
Wearing a blue overseas cap with the emblem of his home state emblazoned in gold braid, Dole asked the audience: “Do we embrace ideas that unite us, regardless of our sex or color or religion? . . . Or are we just a crowd of competing groups thrown by fate between two oceans?”
The Legion speech and the one to the Economic Club of Chicago today come at what could be a critical moment in which Dole’s third drive for the presidency badly needs a lift.
Though Dole still holds a commanding lead in the polls over his Republican rivals, his candidacy has recently seemed to be sputtering, a dangerous perception for a front-runner.
Nevertheless, his aides maintained that Dole’s address to the Legion was not an abrupt response to his recent difficulties nor merely an attempt to preempt themes stressed by his rivals. Instead, they said, the speech was the latest step in an effort to address what they perceive as increasing voter concern over trends that undermine cultural and moral standards.
Dole drew a warm response from those in attendance at this city’s convention center. “He thinks like I think, for God and country,” said Norman E. (Pappy) Lamar, of Shreveport, La., a 73-year-old former second lieutenant who served as a bombardier-navigator on a B-26 Martin Marauder in the European theater of operations during World War II.
But other Americans, particularly those with Latino roots, took a dimmer view of Dole’s advocacy of English as an official language. “Promoting intolerance, particularly at the presidential level, is not what this country is looking for,” contended Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, an umbrella group for more than 200 Latino civil rights and community development organizations with a total membership of 2.5 million.
In the 20 or so states that have adopted English as an official language, Yzaguirre said, the impact has been “very divisive.” And the practical consequences of insisting on English-language instruction for Spanish-speaking students, he contended, has been “to produce illiterates in both languages.”
As for the history standards, to the extent that Dole’s attack was aimed at President Clinton, it was blunted by a statement issued Monday by Education Secretary Richard W. Riley disavowing the standards. Riley pointed out that the standards effort had been funded by grants awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education when the agencies were headed by President George Bush’s appointees.
Even so, the standards have their defenders, among them Columbia University historian Eric Foner, who was president of the Organization of American Historians when it reviewed the work being conducted by the UCLA study group in 1993 and 1994.
“I am as patriotic as the critics” of the standards, Foner said. “But my patriotism is the patriotism of Tom Paine and (abolitionist) William Lloyd Garrison and (labor leader) Eugene Debs, the dissenters who wanted to make our society better.”
Times staff writer Bob Sipchen in Los Angeles contributed to this story.