WASHINGTON, April 25, 2013 - “The people responsible will be found and brought to justice,” a president consoled the widow of an American killed abroad.
“Don’t promise that,” the Admiral’s wife responded. “I know the world,” she explained.
This response cast an ashen and dejected shadow over the president’s face. It was as if he was watching the ghost of his oratorical ability to move people disappearing before his eyes.
That’s because, for Jed Bartlett of NBC’s The West Wing, it was.
Like many Americans, I watched the President’s speech in Boston last week. As someone who enjoys working political campaigns, the speechwriter in me marveled at the president’s ability to situate us in the suffering of others.
Other parts of the speech, however, gave me a disquieting sense of disconcert. Stylistically, Obama extended the post-marathon running metaphor to torturous lengths—“finish the race,” “we race,” “toughest mile,” “hit a wall,” “run with endurance the race…,” and using “run again” three times. At that point, it just became too cute by half.
Yet in a case of form following function, the abuse of the running metaphor served the speech’s rose-colored Pollyanna. Obama followed in the steps of all presidential speeches at least since FDR’s over-used “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” declaration. In reality, we have many things to fear. Every year experts assign “F” grades to how seriously we are taking global threats ranging from crumbling bridges to port and rail security to pandemic viruses to cyber-security.
Yet we salve over our legitimate need to worry and guard against legitimate dangers, with Pollyannaish happy talk. “Our way of life,” will be uninterrupted, the president insisted. But, of course, it will. “We don’t cower in fear,” Mr. Obama continued; glossing over the fact that many did cower in fear. And none can blame them for it.
Worse, when we insist, like the president, “That’s what the people of Boston are made of,” we guilt-trip people’s legitimate sense of fear and shortcut understandable grieving processes by setting unreasonably high standards of courage, in the name of showing the terrorists we’re faux unafraid.
When our president do this, as they invariably do, they transform from Consoler-In-Chief into Superhero-In-Chief, convinced they are endowed with immortal powers to make reality other than it is by mere force of their words.
President Bush was similarly criticized after 9/11 for offering as the appropriate response that we go shopping. Yet Bush, like Obama, was encumbered by the Superhero demand we impose on our presidents to, paradoxically, do too much and too little at the same time.
Bizarrely, we think like Tom Brokaw who said Sunday: “…in the 21st Century, the most advanced nation in the world…we have Third World vulnerabilities.” “Outrageous,” Brokaw called this. As long as we think it is “outrageous” that we are human, suffering human frailties, with human responses to them, we will continue getting presidents who promise what, in more reflective moments, we know they cannot do. “Find” and “bring to justice” “anyone who would do harm to our people,” Mr. Obama matter-of-factly asserted, unwittingly placing an impossible mandate upon himself.
For your’s and our sake, Mr. President, don’t promise us that.
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