After sounding ringing notes of human freedom, of social change based upon non-violence, of military restraint, of inter-religious cooperation, and of democracy, the President then began a short recollection:
“And while the sights and sound that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history, echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. . . .”
“Say it!” I said aloud, then thought, “Please say ‘Tiananmen Square.’ Say ‘Iran;’ say ‘Cuba;’ say ‘Eritrea;’ say ‘North Korea.’”
For a few seconds, the President had the live, uncensored attention of the world. The slightest move, the faintest indication on his part of where democracy and freedom might move next, and his words would have given people there courage.
The President’s one word–even a veiled reference–could have replaced costly decades of containment and diplomacy and gamesmanship and engagement–and may have avoided more decades of human suffering in a given time and place. His one feint toward the events of 1989 in Tiananmen Square would have undone two decades of careful Chinese propaganda, which has left a Chinese generation barely knowing such an event even happened, or that people died in large numbers in Tiananmen Square for human freedom. His 2/11/11 statement was therefore one of the President’s greatest moments of moral, if not spiritual, opportunity.
But the President went prudently on. His list of references had stopped with Gandhi.
My hand–Aarrgh!–hit the desk in disappointment.
The diplomats must have been happy, as may have been the President’s political base. But so were the governments of China, Iran, Eritrea, and North Korea.
I waited for the inevitable reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to human freedom, and to an echo of King’s line about the “arc of the moral universe” being “long.” It came, because it was clear the President was thinking long-term.
The President has learned more about the power of the presidency, but he chose, in this instance, to use only a portion of it.
The President is apparently still too much the leader of his own faction, and not the universal leader who speaks of democracy to all peoples and to human history, despite the fact that this time he really appeared to reach for it. He is not yet the “leader of the Free World,” a potential presidential appellation that must be earned by action.
How close he came. But he did not call the scoundrels out. Not even a hint. Therefore, the President does not yet belong “to the ages.”
“Admirable restraint,” I thought. “But will such an opportunity come again?”
Some among the great learn to walk through the open door the very first time it opens. In this case, he did not.
“OK, move to the peroration and get this speech over with,” I thought. And mentally I predicted the next, and the next fine phrase the President spoke.
This speech did move the cause of freedom forward. It was, again, a fine speech, and one for the history books. The enemies of freedom will still fear his words.
But this was not the speech for the making of history.
The President’s 2/11/11 speech will not stand with Pericles, with Lincoln’s Gettysburg, with Churchill’s Iron Curtain, with Dr. King’s “drum major,” with Reagan’s “Tear down this wall.”
The President’s 2/11/11 statement on Egypt was not the speech that knows and combines the opportunity and the moment and the broad horizon of public attention, and draws every ounce of precious meaning out to seize it. For 2/11/11 was such a moment and opportunity, and it was missed. Not completely missed, but still missed.
History gave the President a fast ball down the middle of the plate on 2/11/11, and he fouled it straight back: meaning, he missed it by a mere fraction of an inch. But what a difference that fraction of an inch–the mention of the T word, the Tiananmen Square word–would have made. Instead of being heard once on the evening news, this speech would have been replayed for decades.
The once and future speech, the one that actually may inspire universal, world-wide action toward human freedom and non-violence in service of democracy across whatever political boundary, the President has yet to give. I hope, if he ever gets another such chance, that the President takes the chance next time to the full.
I also hope this isn’t getting too cute with the baseball metaphors: The President has to level his political swing, since he is still pulling off to the left.
How much more powerful than any censorship is the power of self-censorship! Whatever the Chinese government has done to teach the world that the words Tiananmen Square are to them the political N-word, has apparently worked. But the words Tiananmen Square must continue to be spoken, and not forgotten, if almost one third of humanity are to gain the freedom they deserve.
The President of the United States is the one person on earth who must continue to say Tiananmen Square, for then all others will be able to speak it, and undo the injustice done there.
We owe it to the Tank Man, and to those who died that day in 1989, and on the next, and on the many days going forward.
The President and his speechwriters have still not learned the difference between an idol and an icon. More on this topic at another time. . .
© Copyright 2011, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved