Friday, February 17

From "a crisis of confidence" to "morning in America"

I stumbled across a great resource online today--one of those sites that makes the Internet so useful. It is a compilation of great American speeches of the 20th century, embedded within a larger site on rhetoric. Almost all of the speeches have audio or audio and video links, and all provide the full text.

I spent a couple of hours listening, and here are my quick thoughts on some of them:

1. Martin Luther King, Jr. "I have a dream" - what is there to say? If it doesn't bring a lump to your throat, you need help.

2. Edward Kennedy "Chappaquiddick" - a very short clip, but the text is very odd. Kennedy speaks in a strange New England argot (I assume, though it could be a Kennedy thing), saying things like "There is not truth, not truth whatever, to the widely circulated suspicions of immoral conduct that have been leveled at my behavior" and "I regard as indefensible the fact that I did not report the accident to the policy [police?] immediately." I am not inclined to view the good Senator favorably, but this sounds like the worst sort of self-serving cock-and-bull story. "I felt morally obligated to plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident." How big of you, Mr. Senator.

3. President Carter "A crisis of confidence" - for someone too young to remember Carter's presidency, it gives taste of how ghastly he really was (and is) for America. I hate to think what would have happened if he had been elected for a second term. As a cultural artifact, the speech is also interesting for its take on the energy crisis, and the "solutions" proposed, which range from the naive ("We simply must have faith in each other") to the boneheaded ("import quotas," "windfall profit taxes," and "the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation’s history" to establish a federal energy corporation). It is depressing to see some of these failed ideas resurfacing again, and called for by Republicans, including President Bush, whose recent State of the Union address was, in parts, eerily similar Carter's speech.

Although Carter apparently intended the speech to offer solutions to America's "crisis of confidence," he can't escape the grips of his own obsession with that crisis. "It is a crisis of confidence. . . . It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. . . . The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. . . . This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning. . . . These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed. . . . Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don’t like it, and neither do I. What can we do? . . ."

So, when he says "We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence," it rings hollow. He's still Richard II imposing his neuroses on his nervous courtiers, droning "Of comfort no man speak: / Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; / . . . / For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings."

It is amazing to read Carter's speech and to think that, just a year later, Reagan would receive 8 million more votes than Carter and double the number of electoral votes. And five years later, it would be "morning in America." Carter offered navel-gazing, higher gas prices, and massive government programs (from a federal government that Carter had just admitted was "isolated from the mainstream of our nation’s life" and not deserving of public confidence); Reagan offered tax cuts, paring back the federal government, and stiffening the national spine against world communism. I'm not sure whether this shows how one person can so badly misjudge the national sentiment or how one person's leadership and vision can change the national mood. Or neither. Those are lessons for a modern Thucydides to draw.

Carter does say some useful things, particularly that:

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

But his tone is all wrong. You can't imagine Carter leading you into battle and you can't trust him to knock sense into a spoiled and stagnant nation.

I did learn, however, that "I feel you pain" didn't originate with Clinton. Carter's second sentence reads: "I promised you a President who is not isolated from the people, who feels your pain, and who shares your dreams, and who draws his strength and his wisdom from you." In other words, you knew what you were getting: a ditherer and a worrier, not an inspirational leader. Fortunately, the American people had had quite enough by 1980.

For a taste of what Reagan was offering as far back as 1964, you can watch his . . .

4. "A time for choosing" speech in support of Goldwater's doomed campaign. While he says some questionable things, and I have no idea whether his numbers and examples are accurate, his general observations about government farm programs, the role of the federal government, urban development, the United Nations, foreign aid, and, above all, those who advocated appeasement of the Soviet Empire, are impressive. And his comments on social security would be downright radical today.

Most of all, the tone could not be more different from Carter's. Both speeches lament current problems and purport to offer solutions. But there the similarities end. One offers a fuzzy hope that a moribund populace may be dragged out of its funk by feeding an already obese federal government, while the other offers confident plans consistent with American traditions of self-reliance, liberty and "what we know in our hearts is morally right."

And here is Reagan's Cold War plan already fully formed sixteen years before it would be implemented:

There's no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there's only one guaranteed way you can have peace -- and you can have it in the next second -- surrender.

Admittedly, there's a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face -- that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender. If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand -- the ultimatum. And what then -- when Nikita Khrushchev has told his people he knows what our answer will be? He has told them that we're retreating under the pressure of the Cold War, and someday when the time comes to deliver the final ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary, because by that time we will have been weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically. He believes this because from our side he's heard voices pleading for "peace at any price" or "better Red than dead," or as one commentator put it, he'd rather "live on his knees than die on his feet." And therein lies the road to war, because those voices don't speak for the rest of us.

You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin -- just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard 'round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn't die in vain. Where, then, is the road to peace? Well it's a simple answer after all.

You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, "There is a price we will not pay." "There is a point beyond which they must not advance."

Truly, a site worth exploring at your leisure.

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