As a speechwriter, I look at speeches by prominent people from time to time, as well as the reporting about speeches. I probably don’t do it as often as I should. Then again, I don’t do a lot of things as often as I should; and some things I shouldn’t do, I do more often than I should.*
Anyway, some comments on recent speechifying.
1. Why can’t people be bothered to look up Bible quotes?
Tuesday Senator Obama gave a speech in which he attempted to … well, we’re not sure what he was trying to do, but his prepared text seemed to talk a lot about race. Others will dissect the delivered speech in more detail than we will, but this quote in the prepared text stuck out: “Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.” Notwithstanding that it wasn’t presented as a direct quote, that’s not what Scripture says. (To be extra-inclusive, the text continues: “Let us be our sister’s keeper.” That’s not in Scripture either.) There are Scriptural references to bearing one another’s burdens that might point in that direction, but in the main that reference was just incorrect.
I remember hearing President Clinton give a speech in which he smashed two of the Beatitudes together; i.e., he joined the first half of one verse with the second half of another. It’s hard to tell if these kinds of thing are poetic license, laziness, ignorance, or a mild form of disrespect.
2. Historical ignorance, or ignoring history?
Senator Obama’s speech started with the opening of the Preamble: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” The text continued,
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
Notwithstanding that many if not most of the delegates had been born in the colonies rather than having crossed the ocean to become colonists, this passage and the entire speech missed the key historical point that the Constitution did not “launch” our democratic experiment — it re-launched it. The “more perfect union” was specifically intended to be “more perfect” than the previous attempt; i.e., “more perfect” than the Articles of Confederation.
3. Words are important, as are the thoughts and actions behind them.
From an excellent commentary, “The Obama Bargain,” by Shelby Steele in The Wall Street Journal (emphasis in original),
… nothing could be more dangerous to Mr. Obama’s political aspirations than the revelation that he, the son of a white woman, sat Sunday after Sunday — for 20 years — in an Afrocentric, black nationalist church in which his own mother, not to mention other whites, could never feel comfortable. His pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a challenger who goes far past Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his anti-American outrage (“God damn America”).
How does one “transcend” race in this church? The fact is that Barack Obama has fellow-traveled with a hate-filled, anti-American black nationalism all his adult life, failing to stand and challenge an ideology that would have no place for his own mother. And what portent of presidential judgment is it to have exposed his two daughters for their entire lives to what is, at the very least, a subtext of anti-white vitriol?
So, what Senator Obama said in his long — very long — speech may have been noteworthy, but it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of looking beyond the words.
4. Eyewitnesses to history are just like eyewitnesses to any event: they see things differently.
Yesterday, on the 5th anniversary of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, President Bush gave a speech at the Pentagon. He said “removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision,” that the success of recent operations marks “a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror,” and that “The costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq.”
The same day, Senator Obama, front-runner for the Democratic nomination, gave a speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He said, “Here is the stark reality: there is a security gap in this country — a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions.” From those words, and his previous statements on the war, it seems clear why Senator Obama gave his talk near, but not at, Fort Bragg.
Senator Clinton, also in the running for the Democratic nomination, gave remarks to supporters and said, “We cannot win their civil war. There is no military solution.” Her remarks also wouldn’t go over well at a military base — which is probably the point.
In contrast, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain gave a statement that “Americans should be proud that they led the way in removing a vicious, predatory dictator and opening the possibility of a free and stable Iraq.”
It shouldn’t surprise us that folks looking at events from different ends of the political spectrum will see them in different ways. Be that as it may, it’s easy to tell, between the leading contenders for the Presidency, who has victory in mind.
Which leads finally to this: Presidential candidates who have no military experience need to understand a few things about the military.
1. We’re very dedicated to the well-being of the country, so much so that we put it ahead of our own (and often our families’).
2. We believe we’ve been fighting on the side of truth and justice; you’re welcome to believe otherwise, but don’t try to convince us we’ve been wrong and then say you’re the best person to lead us.
3. We don’t like to lose.
In other words, Senator Obama saying “I will end this war” (as quoted in this story) will never be as compelling to a military audience as saying, “We will do whatever it takes to win this war.”
*For the uncertain, that’s a deliberate paraphrase of St. Paul. More an allusion than a quote, it works with or without attribution.