Once upon a time an American president stood up to dedicate a battlefield cemetery, noting with great humility that nothing he said would add any substantial value compared to what the soldiers who struggled there had already done. That was then, this is now.
Once, Abraham Liconoln struggled to find the words to convey his respect for what the 46,000 fallen soldiers had done at the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Their sacrifice, the same as any asked to give their life for their country, was breathtaking, and Lincoln understood how meager his words would sound in comparison. Today our war is compared willingly, politically, with wars of the past. Today our President compared the war on terror to George Washington's long struggle that gave birth to our nation.
"Today, we're fighting a new war to defend our liberty and our people and our way of life," said Bush, standing in front of Washington's home and above a mostly frozen Potomac River. "And as we work to advance the cause of freedom around the world, we remember that the father of our country believed that the freedoms we secured in our revolution were not meant for Americans alone."
Such words cheapen the struggle of war. If the sacrifice of the soldier can not stand on its own, if it has to be packaged and sold by the President as one of historical importance, it sounds alarming. Bush is the type of person who, after a child sincerely gives a gift, feels the need to explain the gift, when it is obvious to everyone, and thus cheapens the entire event. This is probably because he himself doesn't really understand the nature of such things.
Abraham Lincoln seemed to understand it perfectly. He did not care if his words were remembered in 1863. In-fact, Lincoln did not want what he said to stand in the way of the sacrifice Americans had made. In less than 300 words, delivered in two minutes, Lincoln summarized the sacrifice of American soldiers by saying almost nothing, by hesitating to make any comparisons or clarifications, by pointing-out that the real message was what the fallen soldiers had done, and what they felt they were dying for.
George W. Bush is our Edward Everett, who, before Lincoln, spoke for two-hours, and almost 14,000 words. His bombastic speech is little remembered, and in comparison to the humble speech that followed, is viewed with contempt; Everret, the main orator for the ceremony, used the dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg as a chance to be heard.
Bush does not hesitate to make comparisons before their time.
"I feel right at home here. After all, this is the home of the first George W. I thank President Washington for welcoming us today. He doesn't look a day over 275 years old," Bush said to laughter. "In the end, General Washington understood that the Revolutionary War was a test of wills, and his will was unbreakable," said Bush.
Of course there is almost no comparison between the first George W. and the second. In-fact, I can hardly think of a greater contrast. The first George W. was, above all else, capable, thoughtful, and his integrity was never questioned. His farewell address was a primer for America and a warning on involvement in foreign wars, political factionalism, and debt. He said things like, "The
nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave." I don't even need to mention the obvious juxtaposition to our current President George W.
Washington knew he could not defeat the British, and that wasn't his goal. Instead he had to win enough to get the French involved in the war. In the process he lost many battles but won just enough, at key moments, to allow Benjamin Franklin to gain French support. Had he tried to crush the British head-on, unwaivering, with no retreats, no compromise, the Revolutionary War would have ended almost as quickly as it began. But the British were un-coordinated, and over-confident, a mind-set that mirrors closer to our own arrogance. Perhaps we are the bloated Empire facing a determined enemy that wants rid of foreign intervention. Perhaps these are things our President should have though of, before wondering how he'd compare in history.
The Civil War deeply saddened Lincoln. His words reflect a president with a heavy heart, enduring a war forced upon him. I see no such reflection from President Bush who seems almost pleased to be a "war president" or "Commander n' Chief." He constantly reminds us what a good job he's doing, and how his dedication makes this whole thing worthwhile. Lincoln viewed the sacrifice of American soldiers and, when the time came, compared to what they had already done, could barely bring forward any words. He noted simply that their death, their "last full measure of devotion," dedicates us all, not the other way around.