Jewish World Review July 5, 2005 / 28 Sivan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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The Commander in Chief heard from | The president addressed the nation last Tuesday might because he had to — before the slippage in his support becomes an avalanche. Words can be crucial in a war, despite what the cynics say about "mere" words. Words, if they be the right ones, do not simply offer a different view of the world. They can create a world — a reality greater than the facts on which they build.

The test of every political argument is not whether it scores points, or creates a transient lift in the polls, or strikes a clever rhetorical blow, or will influence the next election but whether those words raise the level of public discourse, and will raise it long after the next election. See — or better, hear — the words of a Churchill or a Reagan. Theirs was a great tradition, stretching back to Lincoln, even Pericles, in the annals of human freedom.

Did these many, too many, words of the president raise the level of public discourse? Not noticeably. But, thankfully, they did not lower it, either. They left it pretty much where it has been these months becoming years: murky. Much like this awful, decisive, confusing war itself, which Americans still struggle to get a grip on.

The dark clouds did not lift this week, the landscape did not change, as it does after great words. There was a thread of insight in the president's text, but it was easily lost in all the mechanics of his speech. You could almost hear the gears shifting, the building blocks bumping together as the speechwriters assembled this production number. But the thread was there if you could pick it out:

The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. The war reached our shores on September 11, 2001. The terrorists believe that free societies are essentially corrupt and decadent, and with a few hard blows they can force us to retreat. They are mistaken. After September 11, I made a commitment to the American people: This nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war.

The American people instinctively understand that we face a common enemy, whatever different names it may go by and whatever intramural differences may divide it. They're all in it together.

Just as the American people, by and large, came to understand, even before Pearl Harbor, that the Axis powers, whatever their internecine rivalries and factions, were united by a common hatred of freedom. They, too, were all in it together.

That's why this president's critics bristle at his references to September 11th; they would have us think the "events" of that day were an isolated incident, an isolated criminal conspiracy unrelated to the enemy we face in Iraq.

The president's more vociferous critics would prefer to think of Iraq not as the central battlefield in this worldwide conflict, but as an unnecessary war, a fixation of this president and his advisers, perhaps even a conspiracy on their part. Just as his critics accused FDR of a fixed design to get us into the Second World War — instead of preparing the country for the war he knew was coming.

The isolationists of his day fought FDR every step of the way on every pivotal issue: Lend Lease, the destroyers-for-bases deal, the undeclared naval war against Hitler's Germany, the draft, the embargo on oil shipments to Japan.

If they had known about the Manhattan Project and the horrifying weapons it would unleash, obliterating whole cities, they might have fought FDR on that issue, too.

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This American president, instead of a Fireside Chat, gives us a Talk to the Troops, with accompanying flags and bugles. He speaks to a national audience, not each of us individually, as FDR did. And soon the historical thread he is following is replaced by another Progress Report, legitimate enough but also debatable enough, and so the fight on the most important front of this war — the home front — remains a stalemate.

This president does understand the connections and the stakes in this war, but can he make the rest of us understand? As Americans have understood what was at stake in other decisive conflicts that have had their share of terrible mistakes and bloody miscalculations.

Unfortunately, the thread of conviction resurfaces only occasionally in this president's rhetoric:

The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September 11, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi, and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like bin Laden. For the sake of our nation's security, this will not happen on my watch.

Yes, now and then, but not often enough, and only if you listened for it, and looked past some of the irritating habits that get in his way when he speechifies, George W. Bush did strike exactly the right, personal note.

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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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