Ron Edmunds/Associated Press - John McCain accepts the Republican Party presidential nomination in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday as a 50-foot-wide photo of Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood is shown behind him.
By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 6, 2008
It was an unexpected burst of glory, and the 1,600 students at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood were basking in it Friday.
None of the youngsters knew for certain why a 50-foot-wide image of the front of their school was projected Thursday night behind Sen. John McCain as he accepted the Republican Party presidential nomination. But there were plenty of theories.
Sixth-grader Joshua Popue offered the explanation most commonly being floated Friday both at the Irvine Avenue campus and in political circles: Somebody in the McCain campaign mistook Walter Reed Middle School for the military's troubled Walter Reed Army Medical Center when preparing the Republicans' high-tech video background wall.
"McCain messed up. He was talking about Walter Reed hospital, and he used our picture by mistake," said 11-year-old Joshua.
Skyla Swafford, 12, took a more charitable view.
"They picked us because our school is one of the nicer schools in the city. They keep it clean and sanitary," the seventh-grader suggested.
Classmate Cassidy Boland, 12, said her jaw dropped when she spied her school beaming out from the Republican National Convention arena in St. Paul, Minn.
"I was like, wow! It's not a lot of times that you see our school on TV. I called my friends right away. I was on the phone all night," Skyla said. "Most of my friends don't watch CNN and all of that. They didn't believe me -- they said I was just trying to make my school look cool."
It turns out plenty of Reed Middle School youngsters were watching, however.
Eduardo Morales, 11, was tuned in. "There was nothing else on TV last night," he said.
Brian Perez, 14, let out a yell when he saw the picture of the school's two-story concrete main building looming behind McCain.
"He was yelling, 'Walter Reed is on TV!' It was cool," said his brother, James Perez, 13.
School officials were not amused, however.
Principal Donna Tobin declined to comment because she was too busy with the first week of instruction, aides said. Later, however, she issued a statement declaring that "permission to use the front of our school for the Republican National Convention was not given by our school nor is the use of our school's picture an endorsement of any party or view."
By late afternoon, McCain's campaign was characterizing the use of the picture as a way of illustrating the candidate's call "for public education reforms that empower parents and students before bureaucrats and labor unions," as spokesman Tucker Bounds put it.
But Tamar Galatzan, who represents the North Hollywood area on the Los Angeles Board of Education, was having none of that. She said she was "flattered that Sen. McCain chose to use a school from my district as backdrop to his remarks" but that more federal resources for education seems "not a priority for the McCain/Palin ticket."
Galatzan, who has endorsed Barack Obama, said she watched parts of McCain's acceptance speech while she helped her son with first-grade reading homework but did not initially catch the Walter Reed Middle School picture.
Walter Reed PTA board member John Heaner, a local Democratic Party director whose 11-year-old twin daughters attend the school, call it "a low blow" to use the campus as "a political prop."
He called on McCain to apologize to youngsters at the school who don't support his campaign.
Walter Reed history teacher David Graham said most co-workers at the campus were "horrified" by the sight of the school being used as a political backdrop. The school staff -- like the surrounding neighborhood -- leans heavily toward the Democratic ticket. But by the end of the first period Friday the whole student body was buzzing about the picture, he said.
"They wanted to know why their school was featured. We talked in class about the importance of research and how you don't just use the first thing you Google on the computer," Graham said.
He said the acceptance speech incident provided a teachable moment, especially for Walter Reed eighth-graders who are studying the U.S. Constitution this year.
"Something relevant to their lives was used. Suddenly that thing on TV became real to them."
The school's two-story main building with a Mission tile roof, constructed in 1939, is frequently used in movies and TV shows. But Thursday night's convention showing drew a steady stream of sight-seers to it.
Restaurant owner Joe Miceli, who attended the campus in 1970 when it was known as Walter Reed Junior High School, said he dozed through part of the acceptance speech, and "I thought I dreamed it" when he spied the school.
He drove by the campus with Bonnie Rad, who attended the school in 1973, to confirm it was the same place that McCain used.
Internet blogger Lee Stranhan stopped in front with his 16-year-old son, Shane, who is also a former Walter Reed student. They were videotaping a mock documentary for YouTube and the Huffington Post about the McCain backdrop.
Stranhan, of Burbank, speculated that McCain's image of the school was borrowed from the TV series "West Wing." Actor Jimmy Smits' character announced his candidacy on the show with the middle school as a backdrop.
"I'm here to find out what John McCain's creepy obsession with my school is," Shane intoned into the camera for the pair's spoof. "And Willow Palin, give me a call -- I like the way you Palin girls rule."
Watching the scene in bemusement was Jim Pezzmullo, who lives across the street from Walter Reed Middle School.
Pezzmullo, a print creative director, said the mistake wasn't the only one to come out of the GOP convention.
"A lot of the points they made were blatantly not true," he said.