Saturday, May 28, 2005

Nice Idealism—but is it practical?
Ted Sorenson, on the occasion of JFK's 88th birthday, offers some words of advice to today's leaders, based on the text of several different speeches he gave. Let's take a look:

TOMORROW WOULD have been John F. Kennedy's 88th birthday. Were he still alive, I have no doubt that, with his customary idealism and commitment to country, he would still be offering advice to our current leaders in Washington. Based upon his words of more than 40 years ago, he might well offer the following:

To President George W. Bush on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea: ''The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. This generation of Americans has had enough -- more than enough -- of war." (American University commencement, 1963)
This is an important, and respectable sentiment. I think JFK would honestly have disagreed with W's decision to invade Iraq. However, coming from the man who first brought the United States into the war in Vietnam, I'm not entirely sure the sentiment is credible.
To President Bush on stem cell research: ''For those of us who are not expert ... we must turn, in the last resort, to objective, disinterested scientists who bring a strong sense of public responsibility and public obligation." (National Academy of Sciences, 1961)
I just don't think that's true. The scientists who support embryonic stem cells are neither objective nor disinterested. They believe that their work may lead to a cure for any number of diseases, and that's entirely commendable. Unfortunately, there is no objective evidence that leads to the conclusion that this is in fact the case. Bush set a compromised standard for federal funding of such research that upset both sides of the debate at the time. He set up a scenario in which we can further research the possibilities and come out with some real science to show whether further pursuits are justifiable or not. Bear in mind that many scientists throughout history have claimed objectivity for horrific ends. "Objective" scientific pursuits yielded not only the Nazi death camps, but also the atom bomb and any number of other creations we wish we could take back.
To Vice President Dick Cheney on international organizations, alliances, and consultations: ''The United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient. We are only 6 percent of the world's population . . . we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind." (University of Washington, 1961)
But should we instead allow other minorities to impose their will on us? We must never allow ourselves to forget that a solid mass of the Middle East wants to see our destruction. We must never forget that French entanglement in world affairs has yet to show evidence of selflessness. We cannot ignore that most of the world complains about everything we do and then turns to us for money and food to pursue their desires. As long as that other 94 claims some right to our wealth and prosperity, we have just as much of a right to guide them in using it.
To Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on terrorism: ''If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." (Inaugural address, 1961)
I'm not sure I even know what that means. It sounds fancy, but does it really hold up? And what does it have to do with terrorism? If Sorenson is trying to say that we need to pull up the Middle East to a self-sufficiency before they will stop loathing us, well, then I agree. But I also feel I must point out that our attempts to "save" those people, particularly during the 90s, are precisely what Bin Laden wants us to stop doing. They want us out of their affairs—and out of the world—permanently.
To United Nations ambassador-designate John Bolton on diplomacy: ''Civility is not a sign of weakness. The United Nations [is] our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace." (Inaugural address, 1961)
Absolutely right. In 1961, the UN was our last, best hope. Now, it has betrayed that hope. It is an instrument of petty tyrants, and of corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. It is the cause of theft, rape, and untold other crimes throughout the world. It needs real change. If that can be brought about through civility, then great. However, sometimes you need a bull in the ring to make things happen—maybe Bolton is the right guy for that kind of thing?
To Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on space: ''We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. This new ocean must be a sea of peace, [not] a new terrifying theater of war." (Rice University, 1962)
Another admirable sentiment. But may I ask: why? What's so sacred about space? And if our enemies seek to attack us through whatever means necessary, should we not attempt to defend ourselves through the same? I guarantee that the Chinese seek to weaponize space—so, what, we're just supposed to sit on our hands and when a laser beam comes down on Washington D.C. we say "no fair, China, space is for science not war!"
To House Majority Leader Tom Delay on fund-raising: We need ''men of integrity whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust." (Massachusetts farewell, 1961)
Agreed—but is Tom Delay the only one who can be accused of such acts? I highly doubt it.
To Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on judges: ''To maintain the constitutional principle, we should support Supreme Court decisions, even when we may not agree with them." (News conference, 1962)
I fervently disagree. We should uphold Supreme Court decisions even when we may not agree with them, but not necessarily support them. Separate but equal was wrong—just wrong. When the Court hands down a decision we disagree with, we should make every effort to overcome it, through legal means. The Court has reversed itself in the past, and no doubt will again. It is our duty as Americans to stand up for what we believe in, even if the highest court in the land disagrees with us. Maybe the reason they decided the way they did is that we haven't made our arguments effectively enough—yet. That will never mean that we should stop trying to convince people of our deeply-held convictions.
To White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on negative news media: ''It is never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news, but it is an invaluable arm to the presidency as a check on what is going on . . . [e]ven though we never like it . . . and wish they didn't write it . . . we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press." (Television interview, 1962)
Unfortunately, due in large part to Vietnam syndrome, the press is no longer active. It no longer seeks to get at the truth, aiming instead only to prove that the people at the top are lying, are wrong, or are hiding something. It's gotcha journalism, not responsible reporting. I'm not saying FOX News is the answer (believe me, I'm not), but nor do I think Scotty McClellan is the problem or capable of bringing a solution.
To pastor-in-chief Pat Robertson on church-state separation: ''I believe in an America where no [clergyman] would tell his parishioners for whom to vote, where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the public acts of our officials, where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. The presidency must not be the instrument of any one religious group." (Houston ministers, 1960)
Read that last sentence again. Here's the thing: Pat Robertson and President Bush are members of entirely different sects of Christianity. It drives the irreligious left nuts that President Bush holds views that are held by a majority of Americans—because those views are based around tenets of faith that happen to be common between several major religions. But where is the outrage when the Democrats spend the weeks leading up to Election Day preaching in black churches? Yes, conservative Christians are currently a center of power within the GOP. Despite the fact that I often disagree with the goals of this group, I have no right to condemn them because they are religious in nature. Are their efforts any more fervent and focused than those of the ACLU? I think not. For some reason, however, they are condemned because of their religious inspiration—and only when they are appealed to by the Republican Party.
To Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes on propaganda: ''The United States is a peaceful nation where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction not belligerence." (undelivered Dallas speech, 1963)
Um. I'm pretty sure Karen Hughes was hired precisely that our convictions may be expressed with honesty and openness. Does Sorenson believe that we are trying to trick the Muslim world into believing in democracy and freedom from oppression? If so, then I am saddened by his view of American ideals. He seems so confident in the strength of this nation, but somehow it is a bad thing to try and share the secrets of that strength with the world that they might come to find such wonderful prosperity as our ancestors have left us? Karen Hughes was not hired for propaganda purposes, she was hired to get our message out in a clear and convincing manner. She was hired precisely that we could voice our convictions to the world without belligerence. Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot. She campaigned for Bush, so she must be a liar and a sneak.

Sorenson finishes simply, and I'll leave you with what he had to say, free from any spin I might add:
How I miss his friendship. How our nation misses his wisdom.
Everyone please enjoy your Memorial Day Weekend, and be safe.


Me said...

My favorite quote: I guarantee that the Chinese seek to weaponize space—so, what, we're just supposed to sit on our hands and when a laser beam comes down on Washington D.C. we say "no fair, China, space is for science not war!"

I used it as my away message. You make me giggle.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Great post. However, all these sentiments are clearly meant to strike a sentimental chord to JFK's generation. We must not forget that JFK's period was largely idealized; hence, the special attention devoted to what he said. Honestly, there were more influential presidents whose advice may have been less beautifully worded but more specific and and practical. All that aside, however, it is interesting that all the statements Sorenson chose would seem to be critical of all the policies of the current administration. I, however, am not as convinced that Kennedy would react to the circumstances today with nothing but criticism.