Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2005 / 22 Elul,
Calling all saints --- it's time to come marching in
First restore the spirit. That has been the first priority of every great leader in a time of crisis:
Think of Franklin Roosevelt telling the nation it had nothing to fear but fear itself as he took office in the wake of an economic hurricane.
Or Winston Churchill giving the V-for-Victory sign as he walked the debris-littered streets of a London shattered in the Blitz.
Or Ronald Reagan proclaiming a new beginning for a dispirited country sunk in a self-induced malaise.
Each understood: First restore the spirit and then all else will be added unto you. Each used the English language as a first responder, mobilizing words to remind a nation of its enduring strengths and to call up its reserves of courage, of unity, of energy and imagination.
That was the challenge George W. Bush accepted as he stood before St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans' familiar Jackson Square. At his side was the familiar statue of Andrew Jackson, still mounted and ready to ride. Now another, different Battle of New Orleans looms.
From the president's first words, something familiar began to stir in the country: pride and hope, even a new renewed trust. ("I am speaking to you from the city of New Orleans, nearly empty, still partly under water and waiting for life and hope to return.") The first requirement of a great leader is that he face the facts squarely, rather than seek false comfort in denial.
It was like watching a patient come out of a coma. After a long, demoralizing paralysis, the country's leader was being a leader again. As the words came back, so did the country's spirit despite the ever jabbering voices on camera and in our heads telling us beforehand not to expect much. The president's words came through this time, and hope began to return.
What had happened? After a series of stumbles, this president was recapturing his stride. This time he was on the ground, in the midst of the devastation. No more flyovers. No more delegation of responsibility to the irresponsible. ("Brownie, you're doin' a heckuva job!")
Instead he put it plain: "I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution."
Government had failed on all levels local, state, federal and obscured the heroic responses of individuals. Now their spirit seemed to flow upward and revive their leader: "And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know: There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."
It doesn't take much intuition to sense the influence of Michael Gerson in the president's speech. He is to George W. Bush as Louis Howe was to Franklin Roosevelt.
There was, for example, that perfect metaphor of a jazz funeral: After the slow, mournful march to the cemetery sunk in blues indigo, there comes the high-stepping march back to life.
But where will this leader lead? The president painted the future in broad, bold, determined strokes: He spoke of massive investment private and public and charitable. He spoke of home ownership and tax-free enterprise zones, of federal aid and state and local participation.
This was no detailed blueprint but what must precede and fulfill any plan: a sense of direction and, at least as important, a sense of determination.
Is what this president proposes conservative or liberal? It won't matter if it works. If it doesn't, the finest abstractions will not avail.
Did FDR plunge the country into socialism or save capitalism? What mattered was that he restored our spirit, and in turn the country was restored, free to shape its own future.
Once again what matters is whether the country will revive, first in spirit, then in all else. And this president showed the right spirit: "We will not just rebuild, we will build higher and better."
All the voices declaring defeat before the battle has even been joined begin to sound small and faint, weak and divisive, in the shadow of the president's words in New Orleans.
It was as if he were reminding Americans of what we were in danger of forgetting: "We can do this!"
That is what happens when the words chosen are the right ones. That is what will happen if faith is restored.
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