Jewish World Review May 12, 2004 / 21 Iyar 5764

Paul Greenberg

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A time to talk plain | A year after the formal victory, the informal and decisive struggle continues - not just for Iraq, and not just for the Middle East, but for the kind of world we will leave our children, and those of the Middle East. That is what this strange new world war is about.

One of the great obstacles to achieving that better world, perhaps the greatest, is the inability of our leaders to admit their mistakes even when they recognize them, as they surely must by now.

And yet George W. Bush seems incapable of admitting error any more than John Kerry can apologize for his reckless words when he was protesting another war for freedom. Both men would lead us. Neither can lead if they don't level with us.

It was a "tough week," the president said the other day after a tough year.

As for Senator Kerry, he now speaks of having used some extravagant rhetoric about Americans' acting like war criminals during the late unpleasantness in Vietnam, but a simple "I am sorry" never crosses his lips.

It's as if both these leaders seem to think an honest recognition of past mistakes would destroy their credibility when, of course, it would bolster it. The way a simple, honest correction bolsters a newspaper's. But the art of the apology direct seems to have died away in American life. One seldom hears a straightforward "I am sorry," or "I was wrong." It is always "I am sorry but . . ." Or, "I may have been wrong, but . . ." And the whole point of an apology, the kind that leads to conciliation, is lost.

Instead, the once simple apology has been replaced by an additional offense - what I've come to think of as the semi- or pseudo-apology. In some respects it is worse than no apology at all, for it always comes out as an attempt at self-justification. And the practical effect is to reopen the hurt.

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It is hard to imagine either George W. Bush or John Kerry opening a broadcast as directly as Winston Churchill did in June of 1940: "The news from France is very bad and I grieve . . . ." He did not flinch or quibble or pretend or soften the blow. That is, he spoke as if addressing responsible adults.

Not since this president and commander-in-chief addressed Congress in the aftermath of September 11th, or his commencement speech at West Point when Afghanistan was still the central front, has this president scaled the rhetorical heights.

Again and again George W. Bush has tried but failed to spell out what is at stake in this world war, the way Winston Churchill did in June of 1940, when he told the House of Commons:

"The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age . . . ."

It was Churchill who, in his country's darkest days, told the boys at his old school, Harrow, that these were not dark days but stern days, and that, whatever fate had in store for them and for him, they were all privileged to live at such a time of ultimate challenge. And he left them with this piece of advice: ". . . never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never - in nothing great or small, large or petty -never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force . . . ." He didn't, neither did they, and the result was the British Empire's finest hour.

Today the American people face stern days in another war, and Churchill's words remain the one sure guide.

Whether the American people understand what is at stake in today's conflict isn't at all clear from the discordant sounds of the political debate this election year. This conflict isn't being waged on just one front even if it is now Iraq that occupies our waking thoughts and uneasy dreams. Our victory over the forces of this new Dark Age depends on recognizing the magnitude of the unprecedented threat we face: an enemy without a country but a myriad of tentacles. We have been attacked not so much by a new nationalism as by an old fanaticism straight out of Churchill's dark abyss.

The American people do not expect our leaders to be perfect; nobody actually believes those nominating speeches at national conventions except the most partisan, and they only for that magical moment before reality returns. But we do expect our leaders to be honest with us at this moment of testing. Tactics and even strategy may change, but principle must not.

We expect our leaders to share their burdens with us, and not pretend that everything always goes according to plan in wartime. Responsible adults know that every battle plan dissolves at first contact with the enemy, and that freedom has never come cheap. Its broad sunlit uplands are reached only by trudging through dark valleys and stern days.

Much as we might like to think otherwise in the heat of political passion, there is no perfect leader out there, any more than there is some pat solution just waiting for us to grasp it. There is only struggle. And the beginning of wisdom is to recognize as much. This enemy will not be defeated by force alone. Victory will also require patience, cunning, flexibility, unity.

As another wartime leader told the people of a terribly divided Union, the occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion. But how can we if our leaders will not confront their own mistakes, and take us into their confidence?

In the end, I do believe, we shall overcome. Because in the end our leaders will face up to defeats and difficulties. So will we all, whatever our petty political passions. For only by being honest with one another can we strengthen one another.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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