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Wilbur's Gift

President Obama admitted before his Competitiveness Council this week that the projects he touted to ram through his $787 billion stimulus package were not really "shovel ready." The shovels weren't ready but the sieves are. I learned about competitiveness from Wilbur.

Wilbur came to our school in fourth grade. I remember the day he arrived. I was a violin student then, but when Wilbur started in, he quickly moved past me and all the other scratchers and squeakers. I quit the violin and took up the bassoon. By seventh grade, Wilbur was the most advanced student in all the advanced classes, and we kids all knew it. His grade point average was 98.6, which we said was "normal" for Wilbur.

Those of us not as gifted as Wilbur didn't really resent him. We all liked him; he was so nice and never boasted. Oh, yes, there was the usual kid teasing. And I was happy to be able to beat Wilbur on the soccer field and in student council elections. But we all acknowledged his academic superiority.

Our high school added a fourth year of Latin and a third year of Greek - because Wilbur needed them for his planned major at Harvard. He wanted to study the history of science. Jaws dropped when Wilbur's science project arrived - in a trailer. He had actually found an alternate way to measure the speed of light. Albert Michelson's method had won him the 1907 Nobel Prize for Physics.

Only in my senior year, when Wilbur began regularly to beat me on American history exams, did I feel edged out. I would happily yield to Wilbur's superiority in the sciences. I took French to avoid competing with him in the Classics. But, hey, Wilbur: American history is my favorite subject. I buckled down, quietly determined that I would score higher on the New York State Regents exam in American history if it killed me. Three days before graduation, our grades were posted. I had beaten Wilbur by one point!

I never told Wilbur that I was determined to beat him. It was one of the few things I did quietly. More than thirty years later, I read that Wilbur had died. He had sailed through Harvard in just three years and was a tenured professor of the history of science at Stanford University. I asked Stanford to send me Wilbur's curriculum vitae. It was an 82-page summary, single-spaced, of Wilbur's published articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

I was proud to say I had been Wilbur's classmate if never really in his class. He was always in a class by himself.

President Obama should have had a Wilbur in his life. When he told "Joe the Plumber" we are all better off when we spread the wealth around, I knew that Barack Obama had no idea what competition is and how it works to bring out the best in everyone. Should I be given a share of Wilbur's honors for those 82 pages of juried journal articles? Should Wilbur be given my one point lead on the history Regents?

Not understanding competition, President Obama doesn't understand justice, either.

Americans will never, I hope, agree that it is fair and effective to rob achievers of their achievement. It is not surprising that President Obama says he believes in American Exceptionalism, but that he believes it in the way that Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism and Brits believe in British Exceptionalism. The chaos - a Greek word - that is descending on modern Greece shows what happens when the politics of envy and class warfare are given free rein.

I was lucky that my friend Wilbur spurred me to excel. He gave me a priceless gift.

Who's going to give that gift to the President of the United States?

Robert Morrison is senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.


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