When President Lincoln took the stage at Gettysburg, several months after the battle, he had been preceded by Edward Everett of Mass., an orator renown for his eloquence. Everett, who spoke for roughly two hours, was the one whose words the newspapers put on the front page, not the President’s. Abe – who was not an Easterner like Everett, and whose accent rang not with the measured aristocracy of Boston, but with the backwoods sounds of Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois – must have felt particularly inferior at the end of his short, two minute speech: nobody clapped. Unbeknownst to Abe, who thought his speech a failure, the silence that filled that “hallowed ground” was not because his audience did not care for the address, nor did they compare him unfavorably with Everett; rather, it was that they were too moved, too stunned and unbelieving of the magnificence that had just poured forth from their President’s mouth, to do anything at all.
Wartime presidents like Lincoln have a certain rhetorical advantage over their peacetime counterparts; not only does their task require that the nation be inspired, their subject is one which lends itself with great facility to inspiration. Healthcare reform may be a good and noble task, but it does not lend itself to remembrance in the popular mind the same way that “making the world safe for democracy” does. While we all recognize the importance of the budget, for example, and what the government is and is not willing to pay for, these mundane domestic issues do not stir the soul in the same manner that FDR’s description of December 7 as “a date which shall live in infamy.” Eloquence seems to flow in a disproportionate stream during war years.
Last Thursday night, eloquence once again flowed – this time, from President Bush’s lips. In his address to a joint session of Congress and the nation, he delivered what I believe will be remembered as one of the better speeches in the history of the Republic. I do not believe that anyone will dispute that President Bush is not gifted with a natural talent for polished speech; in fact, his rhetoric belongs to the “give-it-to-’em-straight” school of public address, tailored more to the interminable heat and swirling dust of the West Texas plains than to official, loquacious Washington. Last week, though, President Bush and his speechwriters moved past his predilection for unembellished frankness, and produced a speech that not only fulfilled its task of rallying the nation, but did so with phrases of rare majesty and exceptional power. Its affirmations of the democratic values and traditions that this country was built upon, and of our willingness to defend them, struck at the deepest parts of the American soul.
It contained ringing denunciations of the great evil visited upon the United States, and the world at large, by the events of Sept. 11 – pleas to the nation for kindness towards their Arab friends and neighbors and forceful warnings to those despicable individuals responsible for these attacks. It was a wonderful speech, not only because it appealed to our strong desire – and need – for self-defense, but also because it spoke to something higher, something truly lofty.
Now, though I am more than impressed by his speech of last Thursday (as I am sure you can tell), there is still much that I do not agree with President Bush on; I would not have voted for him, had I been able to vote, and much of his domestic policy, particularly on the environment, worries me. But that is not the point, nor should it be. This is one of those cases, not seen too much, if at all, in recent years, about which it may accurately be said that party lines end at the water’s edge. This is as it should be; while we may disagree vociferously on matters of domestic policy, abroad, we are all Americans, whether we like it or not. For me, the fact that I am an American is something that I am proud of. Aside from being the greatest champion of democracy and liberty that the world has ever known, the United States has produced one of the most prosperous and free societies on the planet. For that and a million other reasons, I am glad to be able to say that I am an American citizen.
However, I am aware that there are many, especially here at Williams, that the United States is a gurdian of a corrupt world order. To those people, I can only say that freedom, democracy and the rule of law, while not perfect, have tended to work out far better than the alternatives so far presented to the world – for example, communism, fascism and those radical fundamentalist governments like the one presently in power in Afghanistan.
President Bush, whether you love him or hate him, is, in fact, defending a world order that considers life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness inalienable rights, and that seeks peace and prosperity for its citizens.
He may not be the most intelligent person around, and his election may have not been the clearest, but I believe that he is a fundamentally good man, and if his speech on Thursday shows anything, it is that he is a man who can rise to the occasion, whatever that occasion may be, and one who has a habit of exceeding our expectations. Now that he has been thrust by history into the unenviable position of freedom’s defender and democracy’s paladin, in short, of America’s knight, armored with resolve. Let us hope that he exceeds our expectations once again, and with even a small measure of the magnificence of Lincoln or FDR. I believe he can.