Brian Lehrer: Beware My Vacation

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WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer has noticed a pattern in the news. Whenever he takes a vacation, the most memorable stories of the year always seem to break. Brian says last week was no exception.

BRIAN: This time, I was off a measly five work days. But that was long enough for the pledge of allegiance to be declared unconstitutional, for vouchers to be declared constitutional, and for president bush to announce to the world that he was having a colonoscopy. So please indulge me while I comment on each of these briefly, if belatedly. First the colonoscopy. If Clinton was the first president to utter the words gay and lesbian in public, president bush is the first to say "colonoscopy", and to urge all Americans over 50 to get one. He's right, of course: it's not that uncomfortable, and it can head off most cases of colon cancer, one of our leading preventable causes of death. But the president left out two things: a colonoscopy costs about a thousand dollars, and according to the AARP, there are 5 million uninsured Americans between the ages of 50 and 64. Just an oversight, I'm sure. And he might have mentioned that colonoscopies are not a bad way to make a living. I know a gastroenterolgist who says he performs 20 colonoscopies a week. Do the math.

As for vouchers, I rarely find myself agreeing with the current Supreme Court or free market guru Milton Friedman, but in this case, I think both are half right. Giving parents vouchers to spend at any school they choose is not establishing religion, any more than letting Notre dame college students get federal student aid. But the Cleveland program the court was examining is RIGGED for religious schools by being vouchers on the cheap - just 2250 dollars per year. That's about what parochial schools charge. But secular private schools charge much more. No wonder 99 percent of Cleveland voucher students wound up in religious schools this year. But that's where Milton Friedman comes in. he says if vouchers are good for the entire amount that a city spends per student - 7,000 dollars in Cleveland's case, then kids will have religious and secular choices. Well maybe in Cleveland but not in New York. The average spending per student is about 8-thousand dollars here. The secular private schools costs twice that. so if the vouchers ruling is really to be today's brown vs board of education, the follow-up civil rights campaign has to be: set the voucher values high. Really high. So inner city kids will really have a choice.

Finally, the pledge. You'll want to shoot me for saying so, but I think the court was right. Since students are required to recite "under God", that IS government establishing religion. But I was also amused by the democrats in the senate who rushed up a unanimous vote in support of the pledge the way it is - that's the democrats, who claim to be the party that DOESN'T pander to religion. Maybe it's a case of 9/11 fever. But even more amusing was the New York times editorial page, which said "after millions of repetitions over the years, the phrase has become part of the backdrop of American life." I guess that means if we're numb to it, it doesn't matter. So I propose adding the phrases "Jesus saves" and "heil Hitler" to the pledge. After all, a few million repetitions from now, who'll notice?

ANCHOR: WNYC's Brian Lehrer. you can hear his call-in show weekday mornings at 10 on 93.9 and am820 WNYC.