|Lyndon Johnson makes his great speech in 1965|
“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colours, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.
At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man--a man of God--was killed.
There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our Democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government--the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country--to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crises. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.......There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans--not as Democrats or Republicans; we're met here as Americans to solve that problem. This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose........
........The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal." "Government by consent of the governed." "Give me liberty or give me death." And those are not just clever words, and those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty risking their lives. Those words are promised to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom. He shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being...........
....... This is the richest and the most powerful country which ever occupied this globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be tax-payers instead of tax-eaters.
I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men, and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth......”
Lyndon Johnson had taken over the Presidency in terrible times following the assassination of Kennedy and he knew his duty and his role; his country needed his firm but healing words and his strong leadership to give direction - and he rose to the occasion. His majestic and humbling words might never be bettered but are just one of many examples of great leadership and great speeches all of which have had a number of things in common: they bring people together, heal divisions, raise spirits, make clear the direction in which the nation – indeed mankind - needs to go and put forward a scenario that everyone can and must be part of; but above all they set out plainly the ideals upon which the nation rests and what all must subscribe to if they are to be a part of that nation and that mission.
But the arc of great leadership and high ideals now spirals on a downward trajectory. The past year or so of campaigning in the USA for the presidency or the UK for Brexit have been filled not with high ideals, soaring rhetoric and glorious missions for mankind but with division, bitterness and unpleasantness. The divisive nature of Trump’s campaign, the lack of basic decencies, the misogyny xenophobia and racism implicit in his tweets and speeches all bundled up with a willingness to disregard truth or hard facts when they dared to raise their heads have been worrying in the extreme – and especially so when the shallowness of his arguments are so obvious.
I suppose that many, like me, hoped that all that was simply the less pleasant side of the campaign trail; all would be well, many reasoned, when the battle was over and the nomination won. How wrong we were. Since he became President elect the tirade has continued apace, and has been added to by the inclusion of gross nepotism and conflict with senior elements of US government such as the security services. The final nail in the coffin was Friday’s Inauguration Speech. It could not get any worse I told myself as I switched off my TV late Friday afternoon – but within 24 hours I knew it had.
When, over the weekend, I read and watched a Trump spokeswoman happily tell a TV reporter that Trump and his team were using “alternative facts” to dispute the indisputable and factually provable audience figures there were only two conclusions to glean. Firstly, that Trump and those advising him are totally unfit for public office – if they were then they would never have become involved in this irrelevant issue – it’s only reason was, it seems, to satisfy Trump’s ego that his audience was bigger than anyone else’s. Clearly, in Trumpland size matters just as it does on the school playground where I have seen very children have similar arguments to that which Trump embroiled himself in this week over the size of the Inauguration audience. The place of the "my brother's bigger than your brother" or "I can pee higher up the wall than you can" dispute is something that children grow out of at an early age - clearly Trump has not done so which says much about the man. And secondly, it proves conclusively that we now are in an age where truth and facts are totally meaningless – and that is very worrying indeed. That we have people at the very top of any government who deal in “alternative facts” rather than truth is not tolerable. When a society has reached that point then all the alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear for if facts cannot be sacred then nothing can. Facts and truths are the very coinage of life – without them everything else falls apart.
Two demagogues:Trump at his Inauguration & Bane from The Dark Knight Rises
Two fakes: Fake Hollywood fiction and a fake President with fake tan, fake hair,
fake words, fake promises, fake human.
But to get back to Trump’s Inauguration Speech! Worse was yet to come. It was in a state of total disbelief and, I confess, no little anger, that I read that chunks of his speech had been plagiarised from Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises where an evil demagogue seizes control of the fictional American City of Gotham and wins public support by criticising just about everyone and everybody – but especially politicians. Trump, one will remember, was keen to tell American voters that he was going to “Drain the Swamp” that he perceives Washington to be so, for example, in his Inauguration Speech he said: 'Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration or another ... we are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you – the people.' So far so good – but this (and other examples) are a straight lift from the Batman film. In The Dark Knight Rises Bane, the evil demagogue tells Gotham citizens that 'We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you – the people.'
Is this the intellectual level of the most powerful man in the world – that the best he can do is plagiarise cheap Hollywood drivel when he makes a speech which will be scrutinised and analysed throughout the world? Is this the best that his advisors can do?
This week, Philip Roth the 83-year-old author was asked by the New Yorker whether his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, in which a fictional Charles Lindbergh assumes the presidency, had foreshadowed Trump. "No", said Roth, and made the point that Lindbergh, for all his fascist sympathies, was a genuine hero, rather that someone like Trump who is, according to Roth “ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English”.
It cannot be anything but worrying that Americans are happy to elect as their leader a man who is not cognizant of the underpinnings of his culture, unable to use language with discrimination and indeed has not managed to grasp basic vocabulary and syntax. As I read Roth's comments I reflected with dark humour the oft repeated joke, the punchline of which is: "It would be a good idea if American's learned a second language - preferably English". Reading and listening to the great language of Johnson, Kennedy, Lincoln and the rest gives the lie to this joke but sadly, Trump also gives it some credibility and especially so when one considers that millions of Americans who voted for Trump seem uncaring, maybe even unknowing, of this surfeit of ignorance displayed by their new leader. It is even more worrying that the man, himself, appears not to care. Language is the one characteristic that separates us from the animal kingdom; it defines us as humans. That Trump, as Roth suggest, is unable to use language appropriate for an adult human suggests that he is unfit for this, the highest of mankind's offices. As I listened and watched this week I thought back to my years in the classroom – this man displays all the characteristics that one might expect of a child or young adult who one would term functionally illiterate. An unfortunate young person such as this would almost certainly not pass an English exam aimed at the norm for their age range and would probably have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. They could probably understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics and maybe obtain simple information from everyday sources. They might be able to construct a simple written argument or narrative but reading/writing information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, or comprehending/explaining writing from the mature adult realm would almost certainly be beyond them. This is what Roth described - it is Trump; his language – vocabulary, syntax and structure – and the complexity of his argument is childlike. He is linguistically and conceptually a child in a man’s body.
In many respects I pity him to have these limitations, but to find that he is now the most powerful man in the world and cannot utilise appropriate language and conceptual skills is worrying indeed. Yet, it seems there are millions of American voters who think this is alright and doesn’t matter, and who are taken in by, who support and think that Trump speaks words of wisdom. We are truly in a nightmare scenario.
The Lincoln Memorial - the 272 great words based upon
Pericles' Funeral Oration carved for the world to ponder
All politicians, writers, speakers, leaders and the rest will refer to great words and ideas of the past to bolster their own thoughts and words. They might quote Shakespeare or Steinbeck, Goethe or Ghandi, Kennedy or King, Roosevelt or Rousseau and there is nothing wrong with this. In November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg President Abraham Lincoln gave what is known as “The Gettysburg Address”. It is short – only some 272 words and took Lincoln only 3 or 4 minutes to deliver it but its impact at the time and since was electric. Only a year or so later, after Lincoln’s assassination, Senator Charles Sumner in his eulogy on the slain president, called the Gettysburg Address a "monumental act," saying Lincoln was mistaken that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." The Senator went on, "The world noted at once what he said and will never cease to remember it.” Sumner was not wrong – few, even today would dispute it to be perhaps the greatest speech ever made:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
But it wasn’t all his own work. Lincoln had laboured long to put together the address but implicit in it is a link with the Ancient World – Greece and the Athenian democracy. The Gettysburg Address is soundly based around the great Funeral Oration given by the Athenian leader Pericles at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) as part of the annual public funeral for the war dead. Pericles’ Funeral Oration has been the basis many such speeches over the years. Lincoln used the ideas, the structure and the style to suit his needs for the Gettysburg Address and whilst not lifting the words of Pericles certainly followed the ancient Athenian’s overall plan.
And it is this fact that brings Trump’s awful Inauguration Speech into full perspective. He did not try to make his speech special, statesmanlike, carefully crafted and nuanced, the result of many hours of labour looking at and considering the great words of the past that might have helped. He just gave the same tired tirade: low ideals and low thoughts where there should have been high ideals and great thoughts; invective and bitterness where there should have been dignity and humility. Speeches are important and have always been so. In his eulogy Senator Sumner commented that the Gettysburg Address was a "....monumental act......The battle itself was less important than the speech." Again the Senator was not wrong – a century and a half later its words still ring across the years. I am not American but I’m pretty sure that I could have a good stab at reciting the speech without prompts such is its power. And this is true of all such speeches: they give a society and shared identity, a shared mission, a shared pride, a shared goal and an ideal to work towards as a society. They become part of the psyche and mindset of both individual and nation. Lincoln knew this, as did Johnson, Luther King, Churchill, Pericles, Kennedy, Obama, Washington, Roosevelt – and a thousand other great leaders. Speeches, and the words they use, the ideas and ideals they present and how they present them are the building blocks of political and social unity and change. Speeches are not just diatribes, they are carefully crafted, measured, each word considered and weighed carefully for meaning, nuance, implication and they do not just appear. They are considered and an important part of that consideration is their context and the history behind them so that the great ideas and thoughts of the world and of history are implicit in them and the ideas and words of other great men and women of the ages are used to support the argument and give the speech its integrity.
For that hour or so on last Friday Donald Trump was the centre of virtually the whole world’s attention; madman, immature child, linguistically challenged, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic though he is, the world, to coin a phrase, was his oyster. He has the money to ensure the best resources and advice available to support him in composing, constructing and making a speech that would raise his profile and standing in a divided country and world. He could and should have produced something that would quieten the division and the anxiety that he has generated; he could and should have produced something that his nation and people across the world would have said “Hey, there’s something more to this guy – something worth listening to"; he could have and should have produced something that gave all that heard and saw him something to work towards, some higher ideal and ambition. That is what leadership is about and is what leaders and speech writers do.
But, he did none of these things. He did not, as Johnson and others have done rise to the occasion. On a day when he was speaking to the whole world and the whole world was listening this functionally illiterate, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist, oaf like, pedlar of “alternative facts” who suffers from delusions of grandeur and a grossly immature desire for approval by being thought the biggest and the best rejected great and lasting ideals and principles, sidelined justice, worthiness, right and wrong, and chose a rant befitting a child having a temper tantrum or some spittle spraying fascist demagogue. And he wrapped it all up not with Pericles, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Descartes, Washington, Steinbeck, King or any other of the high watermarks of mankind's thinking but with lifts from a Batman movie.
How far have we declined when this is the best we can do: Pericles to Batman in the blink of an eye. In the age of Tweets, alternative facts, post truths, Facebook, Batman and the rest we appear to be bumping along the bottom of Trump’s much hated swamp. Is this what the modern western electorate wants and is influenced by? Is this what it means to not only have an electorate of Homer Simpson clones but to also have Homer Simpson leaders? If so, it is a terrifying prospect for, surely, society and western democracy are in terminal decline. As I have watched Trump and his awful advisors, reminiscent of some cheap mafia mob, I have so often wondered what the great presidential spirits 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might be thinking as they survey the unfolding scene. I cannot believe that they are impressed.
"Have you no decency Sir?": The quiet man Joe Welch (Left) puts down the
tyrannical Joe McCarthy.
And as I watched the Inauguration performance – one could not dignify it by calling a ceremony - last Friday some other words, also from America’s great history came into my mind. As Trump’s scowling face, snarling lips, fake tan and fake hair filled my screen and his fake, mindless words and incoherent ramblings drummed like a verbal machine gun into my mind I thought back to one of the greatest put downs in American (indeed all) history – that of lawyer Joe Welch to Senator Joe McCarthy during the infamous McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s. After being subjected to McCarthy’s non-stop, threatening questioning Welch quietly turned and said “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness...You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, Sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Those few quiet words sounded the death knell of the infamous period of McCarthyism in the USA. McCarthy never recovered - his bluster and invective squashed by the quiet and effective use of carefully chosen words.
So, Mr Trump, is there no low to which you will not descend, is there no lie that you will not tell, is there no unpleasantness that you will not be party to? Have you have not done enough damage? "Have you no sense of decency, Sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"