Give Us Vision: It's Your Legacy
First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
When it comes to laying out a vision, some presidents get it and some don't.
Get it, Mr. President. Your job is not only a to-do list for making appointments, passing laws, and negotiating treaties. To succeed you must also inspire us to the future — with words and deeds.
A good president, wrote nineteenth-century historian Henry Adams, "resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek."
The port you seek, Mr. President, is your vision. Those who take this lightly do so at their peril.
George H. W. Bush clearly did not get it in 1987 as he prepared to run for the presidency.
Bush benefited from the popularity of the man he had served as vice president for two terms. If anything, Ronald Reagan was all about vision. "Less government and more freedom was his mantra."
Lofty words and thoughts did not come easily to Bush. Ideas and ideologies did not move him. Essentially, he was a lifelong bureaucrat more stirred by practical evaluations of tangible problems followed by pragmatic solutions.
"A man of action rather than reflection" was how Time magazine described Bush in a profile coinciding with the launch of his campaign. Whenever asked what he would do as president, Bush typically responded that he would pick the best people and run an efficient government.
Bush's lack of interest in the big-picture rhetoric worried friends and advisers as he gathered steam for a White House run. To many, his idea of an argument for his candidacy could be summed up in three words: It's my turn.
After all, as a dutiful vice president, he had attended all the meetings he was called to, seldom took notes that could get him or anyone else in trouble, and rarely asked a question or tipped his hand in a way that proved whose side he was on in a difficult debate.
This ultimate bureaucrat had a problem, however — one that dogged him throughout the campaign and into his presidency. Conservative columnist George Will bluntly described Bush's limitation in those days: "He does not say why he wants to be there, so the public does not know why it should care if he gets his way."
"Oh, the Vision Thing"
Bush himself gave his critics the words that came to symbolize his lack of appreciation for a president's overarching purpose in our politics. The story got out early in the 1988 campaign about a session with advisers when he asked for a list of expected issues in the upcoming race.
Instead of the to-do list he asked for, the vice president was given an earful about his need to inspire voters. He should go to Camp David, the advisers said, and think about where he wanted to take the country.
"Oh, the vision thing," Bush said.
To Bush, the "vision thing" was just another item on the checklist, something you could always hire speechwriters to craft. He never did internalize a clarity of ideas and principles that could shape public opinion and influence Congress. It could be the biggest reason that Bush lost reelection four years later.
Bush could not live down his "vision thing" comment. No matter how hard he tried to demonstrate his hopes and dreams for the nation, it always seemed phony and awkward because most observers believed that his originally dismissive attitude of the concept reflected his true self.
In the presidential game, there is no vision without the right words. Indeed, it is your words that convey your vision, Mr. President.
That is why accomplished speechwriters have become a fixture at the White House, although they are expected to stay behind the scenes. Although it is an open secret that presidents generally read aloud words written for them, they naturally prefer that everyone pretend otherwise. Aides often go to great lengths to stress how much input the boss gave, but it can be difficult to pin them down on the details of which words the president actually wrote.
A standard line is that the speechwriters meet in advance with the president and receive his wisdom about what should be included as if he were some sort of oracle and they are merely the stenographers. Not likely.
If the speech turns out to be a great one, ambitious speechwriters find a way to leak the truth of their authorship. Particularly successful words or phrases from presidential speeches become trademarks for the once anonymous authors. Some even come to be identified by these words for the rest of their careers. Occasionally, disputes arise between former speechwriters about who actually authored a famous phrase.
Of course, if the speech is a flop, the writers are only too happy to continue giving the president all the credit. Beware of this little game, Mr. President. If you have not yet learned how to write some nifty language for a speech, get started. Otherwise, credit for some of your best moments will one day be given to someone else. And if you do craft some powerful words, make sure there is proof that you wrote them.
Elements of a Good Presidential Speech
The elements of successful presidential addresses are fairly basic, but take different forms. Sometimes there is an identifiable foe to denounce. The more identifiable, the easier it will be to nail the speech.
Barack Obama was in a sense lucky that the nation was gripped by hard economic times when he took office. When Americans are squeezing their wallets, they are most likely to pay attention to the president.
Or, as the saying goes in politics, the best way to reach the voters' hearts is through their wallets.
Whatever the dilemma of the day might be, a good presidential speech needs to stick to a central theme. This is your vision, Mr. President. Give it plenty of thought, even if others write the actual words.
Often, presidential speeches are written by committee, and you can tell. They ramble from one theme to the next. State of the Union addresses are particularly susceptible to this, as members of Congress lobby the White House to include their pet themes or projects. The result is that most State of the Union addresses become a mishmash, a laundry list of proposals that lack a greater theme.
A few memorable phrases are essential. Again, dramatic events make that easier. Who can forget Franklin Roosevelt's words to Congress urging war against Japan: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Japanese empire...."
Modern presidential speechwriters do their best to keep the beginning and end as cohesive and thematic as possible, knowing that any number of items will be inserted by the various aides and officials (including the president). Writers try to stuff those things in the middle, jealously protecting the opening and closing remarks.
Presidents differ in how they interact with their writers. Clinton, himself a decent writer, loved to fiddle with wording all the way through to the final draft. For one State of the Union address he was still rewriting in the limousine on the way to Capitol Hill, causing confusion among staff aides charged with installing the speech in the machinery for his TelePrompTer. As a result, the wrong text appeared on the screen as Clinton spoke.
Thanks, however, to Clinton's personal involvement in the drafting, he knew the wording well enough to wing it until the correct text appeared. No one knew anything was wrong.
Some presidents would rely on an ultimate authority figure who could change the final language. Harry Truman turned over the final versions of speeches to his wife, Bess. His speechwriters claimed that she nearly always added a human touch that improved the wording.
Nixon sought ideological balance among his speechwriters, including conservatives, moderates, and, for him, somewhat left-leaning wordsmiths.
Eisenhower was unusual in that he had actually been a speechwriter during his military service — he crafted words for General MacArthur. As a result of this background, Eisenhower was known for putting his writers through as many as a dozen drafts for a single speech.
Calvin Coolidge hired the first professional speechwriter in the White House, and they have been there ever since. Coolidge's wordsmith was a Republican politician named Judson Welliver. Today, a society of speechwriters in Washington is named after him.
It would be nice if presidents took more time to hone their thoughts and vision into words. They could probably deliver them more effectively, giving the language a more authentic sound. But the usual response to such a suggestion is the president does not have time.
Make time, Mr. President. Do not let words be put into your mouth on every occasion. When setting forth your vision for the country's future it is especially vital that you at least put some of the words together.
There was a time, believe it or not, when presidents actually wrote their own speeches. Most political figures did so during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when strong oratory was the principal skill required to be elected. Being able to speak in public for hours with few notes was a prerequisite for office.
George Washington was an exception. He rose to fame as a general and not as a career politician, so he was unskilled in the speech arts. Alexander Hamilton sometimes helped Washington with his speechwriting. Historians believe that Hamilton was the principal author of Washington's famous farewell address.
Abraham Lincoln was probably one of the best speechwriters ever to serve in the White House. If for nothing else, the Gettysburg Address earned him that title.
A Heap of Vision in Ten Sentences
What is so remarkable about the Gettysburg Address is that in just a two-minute speech Lincoln set forth one of the great visions in presidential history. Drawing upon the principles of human equality in the Declaration of Independence, he redefined the ongoing Civil War not so much as a struggle to preserve the Union but as a "new birth of freedom" with true equality of all citizens as its goal. He also ensured in this speech that winning the war would elevate the status of national government over states' rights.
That is a heap of vision for ten sentences and two hundred seventy-two words. And yet there was no bevy of professional writers swirling around Lincoln as he wrote what became one of the most quoted speeches in history.
A popular myth is that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while riding the train to the speech site. That has never been confirmed and seems most unlikely. Lincoln crafted his speeches with great care. He often wrote several drafts. Many of his handwritten drafts for the Gettysburg Address later surfaced, and none of them were on the back of an envelope. Like most of his speeches, they were written on Executive Mansion stationery.
Lincoln actually wrote the first drafts in Washington. And eyewitnesses said he completed the final draft in the home of the Gettysburg lawyer where he spent the night before giving the speech.
Also, the political significance of what Lincoln was attempting to do in this address suggests that he would not have been so cavalier as to dash it off on any available piece of paper while riding the train. In his view, the preservation of the union was not the only thing at stake. The preservation of his own presidency was in doubt.
By late 1863, when he traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to deliver the address, the casualty list from the bloody war was rising at an alarming rate. At least a quarter of a million lives had been lost. Antiwar sentiment was raging throughout the Northern states and Lincoln was its target. Democrats were eager to oust Lincoln, the first Republican president, in the next election, just a year away. They proposed ending the war by making concessions to the South.
Lincoln's predicament was made worse by the necessity of a draft to keep the ravaged Union battle lines supplied with fresh troops. Antidraft riots were breaking out. Hatred of the president was rampant. Just two months before the Gettysburg Address the governor of Pennsylvania and a close friend, Andrew Curtin, wrote an ominous letter to Lincoln, warning the president that the public was turning against him and the war:
I have been looking over the canvass in this State, with great care, and have formed the following conclusions: If the election were to occur now, the result would be extremely doubtful, and although most of our discreet friends are sanguine of the result, my impression is, the chances would be against us. The draft is very odious in the State, and unfortunately is not producing more than one-sixth of the men anticipated for the public service. In the cities and towns the changes are all in our favor, but in the country, remote from the centres of intelligence, the Democratic leaders have succeeded in exciting prejudice and passion, and have infused their poison into the minds of the people to a very large extent, and the changes are against us.... It is impossible to magnify the importance of the result of the election in this State to the Country, and I desire to sink all personal considerations, and all political and personal differences and disagreements, and give the Contest all my time and energies.
Those are not words any president wants to hear just a year before facing reelection. Lincoln had to give the country a brand-new vision for the war that would raise spirits and reset the resolve to press on.
It is fascinating that, in choosing a venue to proclaim his vision to keep the war going, Lincoln selected a battlefield where some eight thousand soldiers and several thousand horses had perished. If anything, Gettysburg was a reminder of his war's tremendous cost. But how wise it turned out to be.
In the speech, Lincoln appealed for going forward to victory or else the dead would have lost their lives "in vain." The horrifying drama of the scene at Gettysburg intensified the impact of his words.
Critics to this day have pointed out that the Gettysburg Address was long on poetry and short on logic. Would democracy throughout the world have perished if the Confederacy had survived? It seems a stretch for Lincoln to have asserted that the Union must fight the war to a successful conclusion so that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth."
Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1922 that "it is difficult to imagine anything more untrue" than Lincoln's claim that the war was being fought to preserve democracy. "The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves," Mencken wrote.
Such naysaying aside, there is no question that Lincoln's gambit worked. His larger vision for the war's purpose eventually rallied the nation to the great cause he had set forth — the defense of freedom.
Sound familiar? Presidents who run wars usually echo Lincoln's words, whether it be Reagan's support of the Nicaraguan "freedom fighters" or George W. Bush's crusade for democracy in the Middle East. There is no better compliment for a president's vision than to have it last through the ages as a useful tool for successors, whether or not it is appropriate.
Presidents in less dramatic times still must find their vision, but it is difficult. In a moment of crisis or when at war, the nation is almost conditioned to rally around a president's vision.
Vision Others Don't See
In peacetime presidents usually must persuade the nation that a cause is worth rallying around, which can be a most difficult task even if it should be done. Defining a vision that Americans are not ready to see takes a great deal of skill.
Jimmy Carter, a trained engineer, tried to inspire the nation to conserve energy. He was right, of course. Had the country listened to him, we might not be so reliant on the foreign oil that sometimes strangles us and keeps us so involved in events in the Middle East. But Americans seek more from their president than admonitions to use less gas. Many laughed at Carter's obsession. People stayed in their cars even though public buses throughout the nation featured placards bearing the president's signature and proclaiming "Thank you for riding the bus."
Interestingly, another president with an engineering background — Herbert Hoover — failed to understand the expansive role expected of a president. His principal failure as the Great Depression descended upon the nation was in not understanding how much Americans needed uplifting leadership — in other words, a vision for a better future. Then along came Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps the most visionary president of modern times, to replace Hoover's technocratic ways with a symphony of words and deeds that changed the nation forever. Roosevelt set the gold standard for presidential vision with those memorable words from his first Inaugural Address: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
It is not that the line was especially original. Eight decades earlier Henry David Thoreau had written, "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear." Roosevelt's advisers later said the phrase had appeared in a department store newspaper advertisement a month before the address.
The "fear itself" line resonated because, like any well-crafted presidential vision statement, it so perfectly fit the man and his times, and set a course for action.
Vision Requires Action Too
Telling Americans to fight their fear was not just rhetoric. Roosevelt's inauguration on March 4, 1933, came in the middle of a bank panic. Fear of bank closures provoked desperate account holders to storm the banks and withdraw their funds, causing further closures. National leadership was sorely needed to stem the panic.
Roosevelt immediately followed his stirring words with action. On the day after his speech the new president declared a "bank holiday," which, for four days, forced the closing of the nation's banks and halted all financial transactions.
Stopping the frantic run on banks gave Roosevelt time to push the Emergency Banking Act through Congress before the four-day "holiday" had ended. The legislation also cleared the way for solvent banks to resume business as early as March 10. Just three days later, nearly a thousand banks were up and running again. The quick success in halting bank failures set the path for a series of steps in the coming weeks that paused the economy's disastrous downward slide.
Even the most inspirational vision is just talk if not combined with action. By telling citizens to stop fearing their fear, Roosevelt was showing how panic over bank failures was compounding itself and actually causing the failures. But had he not acted so quickly with legislation to fix the banking system, his encouraging words would have rung hollow.
Roosevelt also was the perfect person to recommend against giving in to fear. After contracting polio and losing the use of his legs, he had overcome an emotionally crippling fear of drowning by learning to stand and nearly walk in the buoyant waters at Warm Springs.
It is probably no accident that the rest of Roosevelt's quote refers to how unreasoning fear "paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Here was a paralyzed man who had risen to become our president. There could be no better role model for motivating a nation out of its economic paralysis.
"Predominantly a Place of Moral Leadership"
Years later, toward the end of a presidency that lasted almost four terms, Roosevelt was asked for his thoughts on what it takes to succeed in the White House. "It is not merely an administrative office," he said. "It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is predominantly a place of moral leadership. All our great presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified."
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. notes that "vision per se is not necessarily a good thing." When visions "harden into dogmatic ideologies," he wrote, "they become inhuman, cruel and dangerous."
The Wrong Vision
George W. Bush seemed all too eager to replace his father's lack of vision with the wrong view of the nation's future. Journalist Bob Woodward, who interviewed the second President Bush for four hours while researching his book Bush at War, came away with the conclusion that "the president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God's master plan."
This "messianic tinge," as Schlesinger called it, caused Bush to wrongly think that American troops invading Iraq would be hailed as liberators and that Iraqis would eagerly embrace our democratic ideals. To his last days in office, the president believed that his war would eventually produce a domino effect, spreading democracy throughout the Islamic world.
Bush got a jarring challenge to his vision on his last trip to Iraq as president. During his press conference in Baghdad an Iraqi journalist threw his shoes at him. Not that the journalist was in the right — he certainly was not — but it symbolized how wrong Bush's vision had been. It was not the hero's welcome Bush had imagined when he first chose to invade Iraq.
Hitting someone with a shoe is a deep insult in the Arab world, signifying that the person being struck is as low as the dirt beneath the sole of a shoe. Compounding the insult were the assailant's words as he hurled his footwear: "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!" Among Arabs, who traditionally consider dogs unclean, those words were a strong condemnation. And the insult resounded throughout Arab communities. Thousands of demonstrators in several countries marched to defend the "shoe assailant."
Just a month earlier the American people had delivered their own insult to Bush's vision. His Republican Party, the GOP, was repudiated at the polls. Once the dust settled on the 2008 election, the Democrats had taken the White House and boosted their majorities in Congress.
Bush was so reviled that the GOP presidential nominee, John McCain, was forced to run away from him, not once asking the president to campaign on his behalf.
Time will tell whether Bush's vision of American-sponsored democracy in the Middle East becomes reality, but during his time in office the U.S. occupation of Iraq produced little more than chaos and death, bringing shame upon Bush in the eyes of his countrymen and around the world.
"Some visions are intelligent and benign," Schlesinger said. "Other visions are stupid and malevolent."
"Steady the Ship"
The Bush presidencies reflect mirror images of bad vision. Bush the elder had no vision, while his son's was flawed.
George W. Bush deserves credit for getting it right shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He did not write the speech that he gave at the National Cathedral, but it was a stellar example of a president capturing the moment and providing the nation with a powerful vision at a time when it was most needed.
Sometimes vision is not just about ably steering the ship of state to distant ports, as Henry Adams described. There are times of stress when the commander must simply steady the ship.
In what USA Today heralded as "945 words of sorrow and defiance" and only three days after the shocking loss of life on 9/11, Bush declared the nation in "the middle hour of our grief."
With former presidents, including his father, and other dignitaries sitting before him in the ornate cathedral that sits on some of Washington's highest ground, Bush's firm demeanor and soulful tone of voice matched the eloquence of the words written for him. Gone was the aw-shucks manner that he so often displayed in less somber times. The speech, televised throughout the world, contributed in large part to a boost in opinion polls that put him at the peak of his presidency, hovering at around a 90 percent approval:
Our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty. We have seen the images of fire and ashes and bent steel. Now come the names, the list of casualties we are only beginning to read. They are the names of men and women who began their day at a desk or in an airport, busy with life. They are the names of people who faced death and in their last moments called home to say, "Be brave," and, "I love you." They are the names of passengers who defied their murderers and prevented the murder of others on the ground. They are the names of men and women who wore the uniform of the United States and died at their posts. They are the names of rescuers, the ones whom death found running up the stairs and into the fires to help others. We will read all these names. We will linger over them and learn their stories, and many Americans will weep. To the children and parents and spouses and families and friends of the lost, we offer the deepest sympathy of the Nation. And I assure you, you are not alone.
Written in part by accomplished wordsmith Michael Gerson, the so-called Cathedral Speech is one of Bush's best. Its power and clarity are likely to resonate for generations to come.
Gerson, who stayed at the Bush White House for several more years, later described the pressure that he and the other speechwriters felt in those dark days. "Sometimes the words really do matter," he said. "I felt that way after September 11, where if we had done a poor job, it would have hurt the country."
At a breakfast meeting with reporters in 2006, Gerson elaborated on the importance of presidential speechmaking in difficult times.
"We felt very consciously that we were in a situation like Truman at the beginning of the Cold War, where you had to put in place new institutions and rally the American people to a long struggle, and explain it," Gerson said. "Because it was different from World War II or other wars. This was the challenge...to inspire, inform and prepare people for a different kind of war."
As things turned out, Bush's execution of policy in later years fell short of some of the defiant promises in the Cathedral Speech, but on that day he certainly met the moment that the nation was looking for. "Americans do not have the distance of history," Bush said on September 14, 2001, "but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."
Bush added: "This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing."
As Bush left office more than seven years later, the "way and hour of our choosing" had still not come. The nation was still at war in Iraq, fighting in Afghanistan, and still looking for Osama bin Laden, the man who had instigated the 9/11 attacks.
Despite the eloquence of his own vision in those early days, Bush ended up missing the mark.
Consoler in Chief
Consoling the nation in times of need has become a presidential trademark. Bill Clinton met such a moment after the horrific 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, costing one hundred sixty-eight lives and injuring eight hundred people.
The assailants, part of a domestic militia movement, had filled a rental truck with more than six thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, Tovex, and diesel fuel. The bomb was detonated in front of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Its blast destroyed a third of the building and created a thirty-foot-wide, eight-foot-deep crater. More than three hundred buildings in a sixteen-block radius were severely damaged. More than eighty cars were destroyed or burned. Shattering glass from area buildings accounted for some five percent of the death toll and most of the injuries.
Clinton's much-praised appearance at a memorial service in Oklahoma City eased the nation's shock and ended up being an important political turning point for him. For Americans who felt such deep sympathy for those directly affected, the televised scenes of the president embracing the distraught families of victims made him something of a surrogate consoler for the entire nation.
And once again, a president's words at a memorial service met the moment.
This terrible sin took the lives of our American family, innocent children in that building only because their parents were trying to be good parents as well as good workers, citizens in the building going about their daily business and many there who served the rest of us, who worked to help the elderly and the disabled, who worked to support our farmers and our veterans, who worked to enforce our laws and to protect us. Let us say clearly, they served us well, and we are grateful. But for so many of you they were also neighbors and friends. You saw them at church or the PTA meetings, at the civic clubs, at the ball park. You know them in ways that all the rest of America could not. And to all the members of the families here present who have suffered loss, though we share your grief, your pain is unimaginable, and we know that. We cannot undo it. That is God's work.
While the genuineness of Clinton's efforts should not be discounted, it also served as a political boost when he most needed it. The year before, his Democratic Party had suffered crushing losses at the ballot box, giving Republicans control of Congress. The next year he would face reelection and, because many observers blamed him for his party's defeats, the assumption was that Clinton might have a tough time keeping the presidency.
Clinton's Oklahoma trip began what became a huge political turnaround for the president, who won reelection by a comfortable margin in 1996.
Going to the Moon
Perhaps the loftiest realized vision for any president was John F. Kennedy's call to go to the moon. It was one of this young president's many challenges to Americans to see beyond self, beyond state lines, beyond national borders, and, in this case, even beyond our very planet.
So much of what Kennedy pursued in his short time was about leading the country to think globally. He created the Peace Corps. He signed the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
When calling for a test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union, Kennedy used uplifting words that would have been nothing more than rhetoric had he not followed them with four months of intense negotiations that culminated in the signing of the historic pact.
This was a time when the threat of nuclear war haunted Americans. It was not only the stuff of movies or legend. They had seen the brink of disaster in the Cuban missile crisis. The Cold War was very much on their minds.
Kennedy pointed the way to a different port on June 10, 1963, and put his call for a nuclear treaty in the fullest context imaginable. His goal was simple and stirring: world peace.
"What kind of peace do I mean?" he asked the audience at American University in Washington. "Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children — not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace for all time."
Now, that is an ambitious vision — to make life worth living through peace, for the whole world. And in his brief one thousand days as president, Kennedy left a legacy of nuclear containment that really did move the world a big step out of the darkness.
In setting course for the moon, Kennedy eyed a very distant port that was yet another angle in his vision to change the world. He issued the challenge to a joint session of Congress in the first year of his presidency: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."
Official Washington was not sure how to take this. Some in the circles of power thought it was an impossible dream from a foolishly idealistic poser. Others saw it as a cynically strategic move in the Cold War chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Perhaps there was some reality to the strategic aims. Kennedy had just been humiliated in the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, a communist ally of Moscow. In the same speech, he did call for many measures to combat communism, requesting billions, for example, to stop insurgencies in Vietnam.
How odd that in a single speech Kennedy put forth two visions that could not have turned out so differently. We made it to the moon in less than ten years, but a decade later we left Vietnam in shame.
Kennedy had appealed to national pride in calling for a moon mission. The Soviets were hammering us in the final frontier. They sent the Sputnik satellite into orbit in 1957. Four years later, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.
It is truly sad that Kennedy did not live to see it, but on July 20, 1969, a stunned world watched Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong take that small step for himself — and a giant step for humanity. In so many ways, Armstrong was really leaving a visionary president's footsteps in that dusty trail on the moon.
A Promising New President
While nearly all politicians since Kennedy strive to emulate him — his style, his cadence, and his vision — the nation's forty-fourth president has inspired more comparisons than any of JFK's successors. Only time will tell if Barack Obama can deliver his vision of change and hope with deeds. But there is no question of his promising chance, based upon his truly remarkable campaign for the presidency.
None who compared Obama to Kennedy had more influence than the slain president's own daughter, Caroline. In a rare endorsement so early in a Democratic presidential race, she boosted Obama's fortunes with no-holds-barred support.
In a January 27, 2008, op-ed for the New York Times entitled "A President Like My Father," Caroline Kennedy endorsed Obama with words that would have to be the envy of any politician since JFK's time: "Over the years, I've been deeply moved by the people who've told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president. This sense is even more profound today. That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama."
Caroline, who was only five years old when her father was assassinated, poignantly noted that "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them." But in Obama, she wrote, "I believe I have found the man who could be that president."
Obama's appeal to young voters and vision for change in the 2008 campaign certainly recalled Kennedy's embodiment of a new generation. So much about him reminded us of JFK. The elegance and eloquence of his words rang true for voters in ways that seem phony in the person of politicians who try to mimic Kennedy. Even Obama's physicality is similar — a tall, thin frame and a faraway look in his eyes that suggests a thoughtful intellect at work.
There is no question that sophisticated style can make your vision soar, Mr. President. But style is no substitute for a vision that precedes action. Kennedy not only said he would change the world, as Obama promised in his campaign. He actually did it — in just a thousand days of a presidency that fondly became known as Camelot.
Obama's call for change got a head start because he embodies that change. Sworn in as Barack Hussein Obama, his very name represents a dramatic difference compared to all of his predecessors. As the nation's first African-American in the White House, he fulfilled a generation of dreams inspired by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision.
An overwhelming desire for change, combined with Obama's uniqueness as a presidential prospect, allowed him to keep his vision of change somewhat vague in the campaign. Voters were so desperate for something different that Obama simply was not pressed for specifics. And the news media were so enamored of him that they too did not push for details about how he would govern.
There were clues about Obama's worldview in his book The Audacity of Hope. In a chapter entitled "The World Beyond Our Borders," Obama wrote about wanting to end what he considered a long period of divisiveness among Americans about how to conduct ourselves around the world. He described how Reagan's policies disturbed him at a time when he was coming of age as a political activist:
Looming perhaps largest of all was Ronald Reagan, whose clarity about communism seemed matched by his blindness regarding other sources of misery in the world. I personally came of age during the Reagan presidency — I was studying international affairs at Columbia, and later working as a community organizer in Chicago — and like many Democrats in those days I bemoaned the effect of Reagan's policies toward the Third World: his administration's support for the apartheid regime of South Africa, the funding of El Salvador's death squads, the invasion of tiny, hapless Grenada. The more I studied nuclear arms policy, the more I found Star Wars to be ill conceived; the chasm between Reagan's soaring rhetoric and the tawdry Iran-Contra deal left me speechless.
Obama's determination and ability to present a different face to the world soon became a trademark of his presidency. Halfway through his first year in office, Obama delivered a powerful call for unity and understanding to Arab leaders and students in Cairo. The White House aggressively marketed the speech as the beginning of an entirely new relationship between the West and the Middle East.
Obama foreshadowed his expansive worldview to an estimated crowd of two hundred thousand in Berlin during the presidential campaign, putting into soaring words the thoughts about foreign policy that he expressed in his book. It was an audacious act. Here is where John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had made history with resounding speeches.
Obama's eloquence in expressing his ideas and his personal experience was a clear call for a new and different future, seeking many specific changes, from a renewed fight against global warming to offers of real solutions for ravaged third-world nations. And that is what vision means:
I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city. The journey that led me here is improbable. My mother was born in the heartland of America, but my father grew up herding goats in Kenya.... At the height of the Cold War, my father decided, like so many others in the forgotten corners of the world, that his yearning — his dream — required the freedom and opportunity promised by the West. And so he wrote letter after letter to universities all across America until somebody, somewhere answered his prayer for a better life. That is why I'm here. And you are here because you too know that yearning. This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom.... This is the moment when we must give hope to those left behind in a globalized world.... People of Berlin — and people of the world — the scale of our challenge is great. The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.
"Institutions Must Advance"
Always look forward, Mr. President, project into the next century. Where are our major institutions headed? Whether it is our status in the world, the future of journalism, Congress, the courts, or the presidency, Americans will always face a stream of critical choices that will shape the path that our relatively young democracy takes.
Thomas Jefferson once said, "I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. But I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times."
The year was 1816, but Jefferson's words have never been more salient than they are today — and they will probably always be so. In short, with each new president we are likely to need yet another revolution and a powerful vision that makes our lives better and keeps the people in charge of their country.Copyright © 2009 by Helen Thomas and Craig Crawford