Words—Historic and Current—To Be Heeded
In November, 1953, less than a year into his first term in office, during the height of the McCarthy era, President Eisenhower received an award from and delivered the keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual board meeting in Washington, D.C. As the story was recounted to me by someone who was there (I worked for the ADL for 27 years), those in attendance thought it would be a routine address by the new president making nice to one of the country’s leading civil rights/Jewish organizations, kind of a pro forma “you are nice and do good work”.
Shortly before the speech, ADL leaders learned that the national press and the then novel TV cameras would be observing and what was going to be routine was now a “major policy address.”
It turned out that the speech was among the, if not the, first times that Ike spoke out and distanced himself from Sen. Joe McCarthy. But it was by indirection, he never mentioned McCarthy’s name (to that point Ike was still trying to ignore McCarthy, as if the senator didn’t matter).
To those in attendance, it wasn’t clear what the news was, but by the next morning the message had gone out. Eisenhower had spoken about the right of every American to meet “your accuser face to face”, the “right to speak your mind and be protected in it.” He extolled the values of the “soul and the spirit” that make us proud to be Americans; who the threat to those values was became apparent:
Why are we proud? We are proud, first of all, because from the beginning of this Nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend–or his enemy; and he does not fear that because that enemy may be in a position of great power that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it.
And today, although none of you has the great fortune, I think, of being from Abilene, Kansas, you live after all by that same code in your ideals and in the respect you give to certain qualities. In this country, if someone dislikes you, or accuses you, he must come up in front. He cannot hide behind the shadow. He cannot assassinate you or your character from behind, without suffering the penalties an outraged citizenry will impose.
….I would not want to sit down this evening without urging one thing: if we are going to continue to be proud that we are Americans, there must be no weakening of the code by which we have lived; by the right to meet your accuser face to face, if you have one; by your right to go to the church or the synagogue or even the mosque of your own choosing; by your right to speak your mind and be protected in it.
Ladies and gentlemen, the things that make us proud to be Americans are of the soul and of the spirit. They are not the jewels we wear, or the furs we buy, the houses we live in, the standard of living, even, that we have. All these things are wonderful to the esthetic and to the physical senses. [Emphasis added]
I was reminded of this historic statement by two speeches this week from leading Republicans, who, like Eisenhower, bravely took on one of their own and made clear what others fear, or lack the courage, to say. They laid down markers as to what is acceptable conduct in American politics and, without being explicit, who was engaging in conduct that was beyond the pale.
On Monday night, Sen. John McCain spoke at the National Constitution Center as he received its Liberty Medal. It’s a passionate statement about what’s important and unique about America.
During the course of the speech he offered the following:
To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.
We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to. [Emphasis Added]
Like Eisenhower, without mentioning the name of his antagonist, the senior senator from Arizona got his message across loudly and clearly.
Then on Thursday, former President George W. Bush delivered a speech in which he never mentioned Trump, but the sinner he was referring to was transparently clear:
Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication…. We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.
We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.
We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.
This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.
We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools. And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.
In short, it is time for American institutions to step up and provide cultural and moral leadership for this nation. [Emphasis Added]
The McCain and Bush speeches are historic moments; perhaps the beginning of a wave of revulsion at the lies, distortions, hate and awful policies that emerge from the Trump White House. When two pillars of a party, much like Eisenhower in 1953, say enough is enough and that it is time to “step up”—perhaps people will listen.