This Tuesday, Barack Obama will travel to the United States Military Academy at West Point to deliver the most important address of his young presidency. He has obviously chosen the site for the speech with great care and in the hope that the backdrop – a storied scene on the Hudson – will engender an image of him as a strong and effective commander in chief.
It is probably a smart move, but one not without a measure of risk.
The President of the United States will be treated with respect and be received enthusiastically – all very appropriate and quintessentially American. But when the fanfare fades and the applause lines become fewer, he will have the tough job of articulating a compelling vision for the future of a war that has lost its name, if not its way.
Though Mr. Obama’s White House predecessor spoke at West Point twice – once in each term – not all presidents make this trip. Eisenhower, one of the two graduates of the academy who went on to become Commander in Chief (the other being fellow Republican, Ulysses S. Grant), never made a major speech there during his two terms as president. And his predecessor, the man from Missouri, avoided the place like the plague. President Truman saw West Point as a breeding ground for “stuffed shirts” – and at any rate, his firing of the academy’s former commandant – Douglas MacArthur – probably kept the presidential welcome mat in storage in the basement of the Thayer Hotel.
As Mr. Obama’s team prepares for this important speech, I wonder if the wordsmiths are taking time to consult the history of what has been said there by other presidents and prominent Americans?
Franklin Roosevelt gave the commencement address in 1939 to graduates who would soon be in harm’s way in Europe and the Pacific. He told that class:
During recent months international political considerations have required still greater emphasis upon the vitalization of our defense, for we have had dramatic illustrations of the fate of undefended nations. I hardly need to be more specific than that. Recent conflicts in Europe, the Far East and Africa bear witness to the fact that the individual soldier remains still the controlling factor.
However, when John F. Kennedy spoke to another graduating class on June 6, 1962 (inexplicably, for a president who prided himself on his sense of history, never mentioning that date as the 18th anniversary of D-Day), he shared a vision about changes in warfare, telling his honorable audience:
Your responsibilities may involve the command of more traditional forces, but in less traditional roles. Men risking their lives, not as combatants, but as instructors or advisers, or as symbols of our Nation’s commitments.
He, though, never lived to see how quickly “instructors or advisors” would become “combatants.”
The most recent president to make a major speech at West Point was George W. Bush, a man who usually does not fare well in the eloquence department, especially when compared to President Obama. Yet, what he had to say back in 2002 should be reviewed, not only by White House speechwriters, but also by all Americans – because the words still ring true:
Because the war on terror will require resolve and patience, it will also require firm moral purpose. In this way our struggle is similar to the Cold War. Now, as then, our enemies are totalitarians, holding a creed of power with no place for human dignity. Now, as then, they seek to impose a joyless conformity, to control every life and all of life.
America confronted imperial communism in many different ways – diplomatic, economic, and military. Yet moral clarity was essential to our victory in the Cold War. When leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan refused to gloss over the brutality of tyrants, they gave hope to prisoners and dissidents and exiles, and rallied free nations to a great cause.
Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name. By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem – we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it.
However, if I were on Mr. Obama’s speech writing team (corpulent opportunity), I would spend some time going over another famous speech made at West Point. It just may be the most relevant to current realities, not to mention one that we all need to hear again.
The date was May 12, 1962 and the speaker was retired General Douglas MacArthur. The Old Man was 82 years of age and his frail movements reflected it. But there was a spark of eloquence left in him; one that he fanned that day into a brilliant rhetorical flame.
When I watch Mr. Obama’s speech this Tuesday, it will be Big Mac’s speech that I use as the gold standard reference point. Here are some excerpts. The words speak for themselves:
Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.
The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and, I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.
And through all this welter of change and development your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable. It is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. All other public purpose, all other public projects, all other public needs, great or small, will find others for their accomplishments; but you are the ones who are trained to fight.
Yours is the profession of arms, the will to win, the sure knowledge that in war there is no substitute for victory, that if you lose, the Nation will be destroyed, that the very obsession of your public service must be Duty, Honor, Country.
The long gray line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.
On his first Thanksgiving in the White House, November 27, 1969, President Nixon told a group of senior citizens, “In our family we always had Thanksgiving as a family day. We have in the past, and we do now. Our parents cannot be here now, but we wanted people who have been with this Nation for so many years, who have lived good lives, to be here as our guests today. We feel that you are part of our family and we invite you here as part of our family, The White House family, the American family.”
“You have seen the menu. It is the usual, of course. Turkey and all the things that go with it, and pumpkin pie for dessert. Seeing turkey on the menu reminds me that when this country began, Benjamin Franklin argued that the National Bird should be a turkey rather than an eagle. Now, I think he was a very wise man, but the final decision to have the eagle was a better one. When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, it would have sounded rather funny to say, ‘The turkey has landed.’ And today I think you will all agree you would not want to eat eagle.”
Would you like to have an authentic Nixon Family Thanksgiving Dinner? The Republican Cookbook, with Recipes for Political Success,” The Brownstone Press, Inc., 1969 lists the following:
Here are some of Mrs. Nixon’s recipes for you to try:
Today, we are just like those senior citizens in 1969, invited to share Thanksgiving traditions with the Nixon Legacy, represented here at the Richard Nixon Presidential Foundation. All of us here, and especially the Walker family, wish each of you a Happy Thanksgiving.
We plan to spend the holiday counting our many blessings and enjoying a delicious turkey dinner. Our blessings include the many friendships and opportunities we enjoy because of the Nixon family, and the many doors they opened for us. May God continue to Bless America and give our leaders wisdom. . . . and may God Bless all of you.
President Obama’s pardon yesterday of a turkey named Courage was the latest exercise of a clemency that may (or may not) have first been extended by President Truman in 1947. Because it’s Thanksgiving and children may be reading —and because the l-tryptophan is already kicking in— we will illustrate rather than examine what is really going on.
President Obama attributed his pardon to the pleas of his daughters Sasha and Malia. He said, “I was planning to eat this sucker.”
There is doubt and controversy about whether HST was pardoning the turkey or receiving it from the National Turkey Foundation for the next day’s dinner.
On 19 November 1969, Wally McNamee photographed RN pardoning that year’s bird.
A Nixon Family portrait from 1969 — their first year in the White House.
On Thanksgiving Day 1969 —their first year in the White House— the Nixons invited more than two hundred residents without any families from nineteen DC area old age homes to join them at the White House for a traditional meal including fruit salad, turkey and all the trimmings, and pumpkin pie. The guests, ranging in age from 58 to 93, arrived in busses and were greeted in a presidential receiving line.
The Nixon family —RN, PN and Tricia, Julie and David, and Mamie Eisenhower and David’s sister, her 17-year old granddaughter Susan— welcomed the guests, who were divided between the East Room and the State Dining Room. Everyone was seated at round tables of ten decorated with centerpieces of fall flowers and fruit. Music was supplied by the Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Band and the Marine Corps Band Orchestra; entertainment was provided by the Beers Family folk singers and a balladeer from Colonial Williamsburg.
Several guests responded when RN asked for anyone over 90 to raise their hands. One of them was 93-year-old John W. Graves of Neosho, MO who lived in the National Lutheren Home for the Aged in DC. The irrepressible nonagenarian rose three times — first to tell RN that he was born in Missouri (RN replied: “I know President Truman will be glad we had a Missourian here today.”); then to inform POTUS that “I’ve never had a sick day in my life.” (RN: “I’m going to have the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare come and talk to you and get your formula so we can pass it around the country.”); and, finally, to observe that “My father lived to 93; my sister lived to 94; and there were 10 children, five of us still alive.” (RN: “I want to get your formula too.”)
The New York Times‘ headline for the story of the event: ”Nixon Is Outtalked by Holiday Dinner Guest, 93.”
Julie Nixon Eisenhower told the guests that the grace she would say was one that had been used in the Nixon family since she and Tricia were little: “Thank you for the earth so sweet; thank you for the food we eat….”
Proclamation 3944 – Thanksgiving Day, 1969
BY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA A PROCLAMATION
On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving..” This was the year of the battle of Gettysburg and of other major battles between Americans on American soil. To many, this call for a national day of Thanksgiving must have seemed strange, coming as it did at a time of war and bitterness.
Yet Lincoln knew that the act of thanksgiving should not be limited to time of peace and serenity. He knew that it is precisely at those times of hardship when men most need to recognize that the Source of all good constantly bestows His blessings on mankind.
Today, despite our material wealth and well-being, Americans face complex problems unknown before in our nation’s history. In giving thanks today, we express gratitude for past bounty and we also confidently face the challenges confronting our own nation and the world because we know we can rely on a strength greater than ourselves.
This year, let us especially seek to rekindle in our respective hearts and minds the spirit of our first settlers who valued freedom above all else, and who found much for which to be thankful when material comforts were meager. We are, indeed, a most fortunate people.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICHARD NIXON, President of the United States of America, in consonance with Section 6103 of Title 5 of the United States Code designating the fourth Thursday of November in each year as Thanksgiving Day, do hereby proclaim Thursday, November 27, 1969, as a day of national thanksgiving.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twelfth day of November, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred sixty-nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred ninety-fourth.
And, because America was at war, the President issued a separate message to the Armed Forces:
Thanksgiving Day Message to the Armed Forces.
THE PILGRIMS at Plymouth had good reason to express their gratitude to God on that first Thanksgiving Day nearly three and a half centuries ago. Those who enjoyed the abundance of that first harvest had survived in a wilderness where suffering and want were their constant companions. Their faith in God’s mercy was strengthened and sustained in spite of hardship.
Throughout our history, Americans have celebrated this day in both a spiritual and festive fashion, rejoicing in the blessings bestowed upon them by our Creator. Among these, for which we are indeed grateful, is our precious heritage of freedom which you today protect and defend wherever you may serve. Your admirable contribution to our national security insures that this heritage will be preserved.
This Thanksgiving Day provides an ideal occasion for all Americans to acknowledge and give thanks for the courage, devotion to duty, and the loyalty you have demonstrated in service to our nation.