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09-27-09, 11:47 PM #1
Columnist on Obama at the G20 Summit - "I can recall no other major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced."
I’ve refrained from commenting on President Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly because the speech made me angry. And most postings -- or letters, or e-mails -- written while angry are better discarded or deleted.
But this address grows more disturbing on further reading. Some major presidential speeches deserve to be remembered, quoted and celebrated. Some deserve to be forgotten. A few deserve to be remembered and criticized, because they dishonor the history of presidential rhetoric.
Obama’s rhetorical method in international contexts -- given supreme expression at the United Nations this week -- is a moral dialectic. The thesis: pre-Obama America is a nation of many flaws and failures. The antithesis: The world responds with understandable but misguided prejudice. The synthesis: Me. Me, at all costs; me, in spite of all terrors; me, however long and hard the road may be. How great a world we all should see, if only all were more like…me.
On several occasions, Obama attacked American conduct in simplistic caricatures a European diplomat might employ or applaud. He accused America of acing “unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others” -- a slander against every American ally who has made sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. He argued that, “America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy” -- which is hardly a challenge for the Obama administration, which has yet to make a priority of promoting democracy or human rights anywhere in the world.
The world, of course, has its problems, too. It has accepted “misperceptions and misinformation.” It can be guilty of a “reflexive anti-Americanism.” “Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.” Translation: I know you adore me because I am better than America’s flawed past. But don’t just stand there loving me, do something.
I can recall no other major American speech in which the narcissism of a leader has been quite so pronounced. It might be compared to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “I shall return” -- which made it sound like MacArthur intended to reconquer the Philippines single-handedly. But MacArthur, at least, imagined himself as embodying his country, not transcending it. He did not assert that while the Japanese invasion was certainly excessive, America had been guilty of provocations of its own -- and now, in the MacArthur era, things would be finally different.
Twice in his United Nations speech, Obama dares to quote Franklin Roosevelt. I have read quite a bit of Roosevelt’s rhetoric. It is impossible to imagine him, under any circumstances, unfairly criticizing his own country in an international forum in order to make himself look better in comparison. He would have considered such a rhetorical strategy shameful -- as indeed it is.
At the United Nations, Obama set out to denigrate American goodness so he can become our rescuer. The speech had nothing to do with the confident style of Democratic rhetoric found in Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. It insulted that tradition. And no one is likely ever to quote the speech -- except to deride it.
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