The President takes up the challenge of our time
In 1995-6 I read Generations and The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and became convinced that the United States would be entering the fourth great crisis of its national history within another 10-15 years, parallel to 1774-94, 1857-1867, and 1929-33. In 2000 I incorporated that prediction into the last paragraph of my book on the origins of the Vietnam War, American Tragedy. That we, and much of the world, have now entered such a crisis has become an unmistakable fact. What became clear while I was in Europe during the last few weeks was the extent to which President Obama understands this, and, more importantly, the unique approach that he is trying to take to the problem of steering the nation through what Strauss and Howe named the Fourth Turning.
Although we face a real crisis on many fronts--including some overseas--the origins of a Fourth Turning are emotional and psychological more than practical. These crises are triggered by Prophet generations, those born in the wake of the last great crisis, who in their young adulthood tend to reject most or all of what their parents have tried to teach them and set new goals for themselves and our whole society. Thus, while the Republican generation (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Marshall and the rest) regarded slavery as an unfortunate evil that should be kept where it was and, hopefully, allowed to die off naturally, the post-crisis Transcendental Generation (Sumner, Garrison, Jefferson Davis, Lincoln and the rest) regarded it either as a positive good that had to be extended or a curse that had to be removed. In our own time Boomers 40 years ago became convinced by their parents' great mistake, the Vietnam War, that they could safely discount everything their parents said, and that American society was hopelessly evil. Those on the left built up a citadel in academia; those on the right built up the Republican political machine. Since the 1990s the country has been more and more deeply divided on social issues, on foreign policy, and even, as I showed in my last two posts, on the meaning of the Constitution and the nature of American government. The Republican Party in particular has become literally as monolithic as a totalitarian party in the pursuit of its extreme economic and social goals.
At Notre Dame the President, with his characteristic mixture of courage and calm--the qualities,incidentally, required of a great military leader--took on the most emotional issue in our public life, abortion--and told both sides, in essence, to get over themselves. The speech, which really needs to be read in full, began humorously and moved slowly to its real topic. Then the President began by criticizing his own side of the abortion debate--in fact, by apologizing for something that had happened in his own Senate campaign. Here is the key passage from that part of the speech.
"A few days after I won the Democratic nomination [for the Senate], I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life -- but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.
"What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website -- an entry that said I would fight 'right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.' The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, 'I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.' Fair-minded words.
"After I read the doctor’s letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn’t change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that -- when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe -- that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."
I find that passage moving enough in itself, but I was truly astonished by the brilliance of the way in which the President proceeded to address those on the other side of the issue who feel, like the person who originally worked on his own Senate campaign website, feel that no compromise on the issue is possible because it is contrary to the will of an almighty god. To begin with, he put his remarks within the context of a more general exhortation to his listeners, the Notre Dame class of 2009. The utterly Rooseveltian terms in which he addressed them, incidentally, provide additional proof that he understands exactly the nature of the times in which we live, whether he has actually read The Fourth Turning or not.
"Now, you, Class of 2009, are about to enter the next phase of your life at a time of great uncertainty. You’ll be called to help restore a free market that’s also fair to all who are willing to work. You’ll be called to seek new sources of energy that can save our planet; to give future generations the same chance that you had to receive an extraordinary education. And whether as a person drawn to public service, or simply someone who insists on being an active citizen, you will be exposed to more opinions and ideas broadcast through more means of communication than ever existed before. You’ll hear talking heads scream on cable, and you’ll read blogs that claim definitive knowledge, and you will watch politicians pretend they know what they’re talking about. (Laughter.) Occasionally, you may have the great fortune of actually seeing important issues debated by people who do know what they’re talking about -- by well-intentioned people with brilliant minds and mastery of the facts. In fact, I suspect that some of you will be among those brightest stars.
"And in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.
"But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.
"And this doubt should not push us away our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds."
Barack Obama understood that one simply cannot challenge opponents of abortion by questioning the idea of religious faith and hope to do anything but make things worse. Instead, he challenged them on their own terms, by emphasizing the doubt which, in his view, must always restrain zealotry on behalf of faith. And as I read this speech I suddenly understood why our great crisis Presidents, Lincoln and Roosevelt, had also referred frequently to religious values, in sharp contrast to Presidents during Highs (post-war eras) like Jefferson and Kennedy who almost never did. Religion under our Constitution is not and cannot be the foundation of law or public policy; but religion remains too important a force among the American people not to come into play in difficult times. A wise President will find some way, as Lincoln did so brilliantly in his second inaugural, to use religious imagery in the service of the broader political point that he wants to make. That is what Obama did.
The speech was also filled with asides and references to Father Theodore Hesburgh, the head of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, an exact contemporary almost to the day of John Fitzgerald Kennedy who was sitting in the audience at the age of 92. Those of us over 60 will remember Father Hesburgh not only as a university president but as a national figure, very active in civil rights and in many international questions as well. (So active was he indeed that his travels gave birth to a great Notre Dame joke: "Q. What is the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? A. God is everywhere, and Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.") The anecdote the President told about Father Hesburgh was a tribute to the 1950s and early 1960s, the age to which, politically, the President obviously wants to return us without a great war or more bitter internal conflict.
"After all, I stand here today, as President and as an African American, on the 55th anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Now, Brown was of course the first major step in dismantling the "separate but equal" doctrine, but it would take a number of years and a nationwide movement to fully realize the dream of civil rights for all of God’s children. There were freedom rides and lunch counters and Billy clubs, and there was also a Civil Rights Commission appointed by President Eisenhower. It was the 12 resolutions recommended by this commission that would ultimately become law in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"There were six members of this commission. It included five whites and one African American; Democrats and Republicans; two Southern governors, the dean of a Southern law school, a Midwestern university president, and your own Father Ted Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. (Applause.) So they worked for two years, and at times, President Eisenhower had to intervene personally since no hotel or restaurant in the South would serve the black and white members of the commission together. And finally, when they reached an impasse in Louisiana, Father Ted flew them all to Notre Dame’s retreat in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin -- (applause) -- where they eventually overcame their differences and hammered out a final deal.
"And years later, President Eisenhower asked Father Ted how on Earth he was able to broker an agreement between men of such different backgrounds and beliefs. And Father Ted simply said that during their first dinner in Wisconsin, they discovered they were all fishermen. (Laughter.) And so he quickly readied a boat for a twilight trip out on the lake. They fished, and they talked, and they changed the course of history."
Just two weeks later, the President spoke in Cairo. Here too he used religion, calling upon Christians, Jews and Muslims to draw upon the best, rather than the worst, of the traditions each of their history offers in an attempt to live together. But essentially the speech was a challenge to antagonists--far more bitter antagonists even than we have within the United States--to shed their absolutist principles and to realize that neither Muslims nor Jews could create a Middle East in the image of their religious beliefs, or based upon their view of their own historical grievances as paramount. Unlike President Bush he made no reference to any Biblical basis for the existence of Israel, but cited only an historical one. He acknowledged Hamas's widespread support but said on political, not moral grounds that Hamas would have to renounce violence to do its people any good. He has already enraged both Israeli and Palestinian extremists by putting the Holocaust and the occupation in the same sentence. Most strikingly of all, it seemed to me, he nearly dared the Palestinians to embark upon a campaign of civil disobedience parallel to those of Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This President, unlike his predecessor, wants to move the world into a new place without a major war, and that indeed is the only way that we can get through the world crisis without doing horrible, perhaps irreparable, damage to our civilization.
There is much more to be said about that speech, but this post is already too long. I was thrilled and moved when the President specifically repudiated one of the most pernicious aspects of the "Bush Doctrine": "I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons. And that's why I strongly reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. (Applause.) And any nation -- including Iran -- should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I'm hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal." That last sentence, obviously a reference to Israel, has drawn little or no attention, but I eventually predict that it will.
On April 14, 2007, I posted here a draft Presidential speech that I hoped to hear sometime during 2009. (The post can easily be found in the archive at right.) When the Obama transition team set up a suggestion box on its website I posted it there. I am not so vain as to think that it actually had any influence; but anyone who compares it to the President's Cairo speech will understand why I feel that I have a kindred spirit in the White House. "A special Providence," said Otto von Bismarck well over a century ago, "looks after drunks, fools, and the United States of America." Once again, in an astonishing turn of events, we seem to have found the President that we needed at the fourth great critical moment of our national history.