June 11, 2010
The marvels of the Internet continue to stun us. We now have at our fingertips the power to reach deeply into our own past and to pull it into our own day. We can access the spoken words of our long-dead leaders and compare them with what we hear today.
And we can visit the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. There, we will have a chance to smile, perhaps to laugh, at the parody magazine cover theyve displayed. It shows President Barack Obama riding in an open car, a battered fedora atop his head, his head thrown back, and his dazzling smile radiating throughout the room. In his brilliant teeth is clenched a cigarette holder, held at a jaunty angle.
Its a sight gag. Its a throwback. Its a pose so familiar to older Americans that its instantly recognizable.
Franklin D. Roosevelt died when I was still in my mothers womb. Still, I grew up with stories about him. His voice was familiar in our home--if not on records, certainly from TV documentaries of World War II. My relatives would delightedly mimic his head-tossing delivery and his stentorian eloquence.
Now, you can hear him, too. The Miller Center at the University of Virginia has archived many original recordings. Included in their collection is President Roosevelts great speech from June 10, 1940, delivered seventy years ago this week to the graduating class at U.Va.
For context, you must realize that the British Expeditionary Force, the main British army, had just been evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, France. The French army was in a state of stunned collapse, reeling from the powerful blows of German panzers rolling swiftly through Northeastern France and strafed from above by Nazi Stukas. Hitlers Luftwaffe chief, the hugely menacing Marshal Goering, had fitted sirens to the wings of his dive bombers for the express purpose of terrifying the women and children upon whom their wicked fury was wreaked.
The peoples of the Americas looked on as newsreels and newspaper photos showed fleeing refugees. These refugees--old men and women and little children crowded the roads and market squares of quiet Belgian, Dutch, and French villages. French reinforcements couldnt get to the scene of the battle.
It would not have been surprising if young people in America--those like the U.Va. Class of 1940 --felt that the world was just too threatening a place and retreated from it.. But that is not how they reacted. Despite the terrors of war--in the air, on the seas, under the oceans--the reaction of President Roosevelts audience that day was strong, thunderous, and like Roosevelt himself, confident.
He had the gift of putting the great conflicts of his day into the perspective of Americas long struggle for freedom. He summoned the heroes of the past to give courage to the people of his own time. Soon, all too soon, they would be called upon to prove themselves heroic. And led by FDR, they would.
The Presidents words of scorn for the duplicity, the treachery, of Italys self-annointed Duce, Benito Mussolini, are unforgettable. On that very morning--June 10, 1940, despite his protestations of peace, and only when he saw that Hitler had struck the killing blow, the jackal Mussolini attacked France from the South. The hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor. In FDRs Hyde Park accent, that came out nay-bah. Stirring stuff.
Our current President has a young speech writer, Jon Favreau, who is not yet thirty.
Mr. Favreau has no sense of Americas storied past, no feeling for what the National Archives calls the glory and romance of our history. He does not reach back to Jamestown or Plymouth Rock. Nor does he evoke the trials of Valley Forge, the landscape turned red at Antietam, or the sands of Iwo Jima.
Does Jon Favreau even know that Americans walked on the Moon and through the Brandenburg Gate? He churns out words for President Obama that are sonorous and silky, but which evaporate upon contact with the hard and cold reality of the world.
Heres a challenge: Try to recall even one line from President Obamas Normandy speech of just one year ago. Can even Jon Favreau do it?
If the President is really convening a committee of experts to tell him whose a-- to kick, I have a suggestion: Jon Favreau.
If President Obama really wants to connect with the American people, its time he learned something of how we got here. It is this failure to form a bond of the heart with Americans past, present, and future, that led the Wall Street Journals Dorothy Rabinowitz to call him the Alien in the White House.
No one--no matter how much they hated his gaudy guts--could ever have said that about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Unless President Obama learns--and learns quickly--how to make this vital connection with the people he hopes to change, that failure will doom his presidency.