Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: America, we have always been greater than this

In a lengthy new interview with the Associated Press, our president once again reveals himself in all his dismal, self-obsessed splendor. He whines incessantly about all the wonderful things that he's accomplished -- "I've done more than any other president in the first 100 days," he tells reporter Julie Pace -- and how he keeps getting robbed of the credit that he deserves. He has the best relations with foreign leaders, he has the best relations with Congress, he has singlehandedly revived the U.S. economy and military.

You get the gist.

The whole interview is worth a read, but I want to focus on a particular portion in which Trump talks about a speech that he gave back in February to a joint session of Congress. The passage is brief, yet it contains two startling moments, the first intimately human, the second with implications on the larger stage.

It goes like this:

TRUMP: A lot of the people have said that -- some people said it was the single best speech ever made in that chamber.

AP: You seem like you enjoyed it.

TRUMP: I did. I did. I believed in it and I enjoyed it. It was a great feeling to introduce the wife of a great young soldier who died getting us very valuable information....

I remember watching that speech and sharing in the empathy for the anguish of Carryn Owens, widow of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. It also made me uncomfortable, as if her private grief had been put onto national display to make the rest of us feel more patriotic and virtuous. Trump, however, seemed even then to revel in that moment, as if the applause and emotion that washed over the House chamber was somehow his creation.

Given how his mind works, I'm sure that Trump has no concept how callous it now sounds to focus on how much he enjoyed that moment. He wouldn't grasp it even if someone tried to explain it to him. Likewise, I'm also sure that he has no grasp on how historically grotesque it is to proclaim that speech as the "single best speech ever made in that chamber," even as he slyly puts those words in someone else's mouth.

That chamber, the Hall of the House of Representatives, has been in use for almost 160 years. Over those decades it has seen a lot of history:

It was in that chamber, on Dec. 8, 1941, that President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt famously rallied the nation after the attack on Pearl Harbor, calling it "the day which will live in infamy."

"No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory," FDR promised a shaken country, and although he did not live to see that promise kept, it was kept nonetheless.

Three weeks after FDR's speech, an orator of some skill by the name of Winston Churchill also stood in that same chamber to speak. His mission was to warn America against the difficult days ahead and to welcome us to the fight, to celebrate that in the struggle against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the United States had finally "drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard." As Churchill also reminded us, putting up walls against the outside world doesn't work in the long term, because "pestilences may break out in the Old World which carry their destructive ravages into the New World."

In the House chamber on Nov. 27, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke to Congress and a grieving nation in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, reminding us of that we reap what we sow and urging America to continue the work of the slain young president:

"The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law, and those who pour venom into our nation's bloodstream."

Two years later, just a week after the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma had ended in police violence, Johnson again stood at that same House podium, this time to beg and plead with Congress to pass a Voting Rights Act and by doing so redeem the nation's pledge made a century earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation.

"Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote," Johnson said in a deeply personal speech. "There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right." He told the nation that even "as a man with deep Southern roots," he understood that "it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice."

He continued:

"The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation. His demonstrations have been designed to call attention to injustice, designed to provoke change, designed to stir reform. He has called upon us to make good the promise of America. And who among us can say that we would have made the same progress were it not for his persistent bravery, and his faith in American democracy."

Standing in that chamber in 1947, Harry Truman urged a massive increase in foreign aid to war-ravaged Turkey and Greece because as he put it, "The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world. And we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation."

In taking the country into World War I in 1917 to defend democracy, Woodrow Wilson stood before members of Congress assembled in the hall and told them that unlike other countries, "We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall cheerfully make."

In September of 2001, President George W. Bush summoned the righteous anger of the nation as had FDR some 60 years earlier, this time in response to the terror attacks by Islamic extremists that had struck New York and Washington. But even in that anger, Bush took time to call upon the better angels of our nature.

"I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them." 

"We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith."

One hundred years ago, suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt also addressed a joint session, pressing for passage of the 19th Amendment. She was not shy or demure; she demanded that women be given what was theirs by birthright as human beings, and she boldly threatened political retribution against those who continued to deny them that right.

"The time for woman suffrage has come. The woman's hour has struck. If parties prefer to postpone action longer and thus do battle with this idea, they challenge the inevitable. The idea will not perish; the party which opposes it may. Every delay, every trick, every political dishonesty from now on will antagonize the women of the land more and more, and when the party or parties which have so delayed woman suffrage finally let it come, their sincerity will be doubted and their appeal to the new voters will be met with suspicion. This is the psychology of the situation. Can you afford the risk? Think it over."

And in 1999, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel warned us all against the seductiveness of indifference, against the belief that we have to look away from human suffering "simply to keep one's sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine."

"The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own."

And while acknowledging the immense sacrifices of those who had fought and died in World War II, Wiesel summoned up the shameful, seldom-told tale of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying almost 1,000 Jewish refugees that in 1939 was turned away and refused permission to dock in Cuba, Canada and the United States. It was eventually forced to return to Europe, where many of its passengers later died in concentration camps.

As Wiesel reminded us:

"That happened after the Kristallnacht, after the first state-sponsored pogrom, with hundreds of Jewish shops destroyed, synagogues burned, thousands of people put in concentration camps. And that ship, which was already in the shores of the United States, was sent back. I don't understand. Roosevelt was a good man, with a heart. He understood those who needed help. Why didn't he allow these refugees to disembark? A thousand people -- in America, the great country, the greatest democracy, the most generous of all new nations in modern history. What happened? I don't understand. Why the indifference, on the highest level, to the suffering of the victims?"

It's not enough to merely note that each of these speeches, and many others as well, far outrank Trump's Feb. 28 speech in eloquence and impact. What's important is why. These speeches -- all of them from the podium in the Hall of the House -- echo through history and always will because they attempted to push us forward, because they called upon and reinforced what is best about us, because they challenged us to reach higher.

And every one stands in direct contradiction to Trump's America, the country that would go to war to seize another country's oil, that proclaims no interest in world affairs other than its own narrow self interest, that invents three million illegal voters as an excuse for making voting more difficult, that attempts to suppress and delegitimize the ambitions of those still struggling under the burdens of poverty and of ethnic, racial and gender bias, that embraces the rise of authoritarian rule and that treats bridges as a threat and walls as protection.

Each of those speeches from America's past stands as a rebuke to the America of today and, we must ensure, as an inspiration to the America of tomorrow.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.