Will Future Students Read Mitt Romney’s Speech Against Trump’s Acquittal?

Eliot Cohen, Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, thinks Romney’s speech will be read for a long time.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Atlantic, “In the Long Run, Romney Wins“:

Political speeches derive their power and durability from authenticity, from the way in which phrases and sentences seem to emanate directly from a personality and its vision. That is why Lincoln’s speeches will never lose their force: They captured the dignity, simplicity, and courage of the man who made them. Romney is no Lincoln, but he wrote the speech, and the voice is his.

Yet more is at work here than the powerful words. The speech contained all the elements of drama: the man of quiet faith, whose presidential campaign underplayed his charitable works; the handsome politician, whose political career involved both high office and the failure to achieve it; the public figure, who briefly became a hero to opponents who had shamefully vilified him seven years earlier; the successful businessman, who returned repeatedly to public affairs; the patriarch of a large and loving family, whose own niece repeatedly yielded her conscience to the man he rightly condemned. Comparing Romney with the grifter president and his venal clan yields an instructive contrast.

The Romney story plays to something very deep in the American self-conception, to myth—not in the sense of fairy tale or falsehood, but of something Americans want to believe about who they are and who, because of what they want to believe, they can become. Americans embrace the story of the lone man or woman of conscience who does the right thing, knowing that the risks are high. They remember Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but forget the three other passengers who prudently moved. They relish the staple theme of Western stories and films—John Wayne in Stagecoach saying, “Well, there’s some things a man just can’t run away from.” They honor John Adams for defending British soldiers accused of shooting down his fellow Americans, in an era when tar and feathers could be the consequence of that act. In an altogether different vein, they laud Henry David Thoreau for choosing civil disobedience and marching to the beat of his own drum, resolved to remain indifferent to what his fellow Yankees thought of him.

Read the entire piece here.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

frederickdouglass01

Ben Railton has a nice reflection on Frederick Douglass’s famous speech.  Here is a taste of his post at American Studies blog:

I’ve written many times, in this space and elsewhere, about the inspiring history of Elizabeth Freeman, Quock Walker, and their Revolutionary-era peers and allies. Freeman, Walker, their fellow Massachusetts slaves, and the abolitionist activists with whom they worked used the language and ideas of the Declaration of Independence and 1780 Massachusetts Constitution in support of their anti-slavery petitions and court cases, and in so doing contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts. I’m hard-pressed to think of a more inspiring application of our national ideals, or of a more compelling example of my argument (made in the second hyperlinked piece above) that black history is American history. Yet at the same time, it would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to claim that Freeman’s and Walker’s cases were representative ones, either in their era or at any time in the two and a half centuries of American slavery; nor I would I want to use Freeman’s and Walker’s successful legal actions as evidence that the Declaration’s “All men are created equal” sentiment did not in a slaveholding nation include a central strain of hypocrisy.

If I ever need reminding of that foundational American hypocrisy, I can turn to one of our most fiery texts: Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass’s speech is long and multi-layered, and I don’t want to reduce its historical and social visions to any one moment; but I would argue that it builds with particular power to this passage, one of the most trenchant in American oration and writing: “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”

Read the entire post here.

Michael Kazin on Inauguration Speeches

FDR’s 1st Inaugural Address (1933)

Georgetown historian Michael Kazin reminds us that “inaugural addresses rarely foretell what a president will accomplish in office.”

Here are a few great lines from inaugural addresses that did not really pan out in real life.

Thomas Jefferson (1801): “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”

Abraham Lincoln (1861):  “We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933):  “First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only think we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

John F. Kennedy (1961): “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any  price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Check out Kazin’s piece to learn how the flourishing rhetoric of these speeches failed to measure up to the reality that these president’s would face in the four years that followed.

Obama in Tucson

Obnoxious behavior of the University of Arizona students aside, I was extremely impressed by Barack Obama’s speech at the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting.  I think it was the best speech I have heard Obama give since his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Perhaps it was because I have a 9-year old daughter and can relate to the sense of wonder and “magic” she exudes on a daily basis, but I was moved to tears by Obama’s words about Christina Taylor Green and the way he used her death to call us all to live lives of empathy, humility, and civic responsibility.

That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. Imagine: here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life. “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.”

If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today. And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.
those we’ve lost in restful and eternal peace. May He love and watch

This was a sort of civic funeral sermon.

Obama tried to make sense of this tragedy by turning to the Old Testament book of Job, chapter 30, verses 26-28: 

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.” Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath. 

There were parts of the speech that reminded me a lot of Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address.  In a time of great tragedy, Obama called us not toward hatred, but to civility.  He asked us to cool the political rhetoric and the venomous nature of public discourse, not unlike Lincoln’s famous line: “With malice toward none, with charity for all…”  His reference to Job invoked our limited ability to know the will of God in matters like this.  As Lincoln put it: “The Almighty has his own purposes.”

On days like this I am glad that our president is Barack Obama.