The Age of the “Dullest Beanbag”

Published: September 17, 2012

By Jim Lichtman
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I like Peggy Noonan, have for some time. As a former speechwriter to President Reagan, she’s not only smart but takes the necessary time to inform herself before writing her column that appears weekly in the Wall Street Journal . However, in her latest piece (The Age of Would-Be Princips, Sept. 15) about the killing of four Americans in Libya including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and the aftermath of words, she misses several times.

“…both Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Obama’s remarks,” Noonan writes, “were marked by the kind of gauzy platitudes that, coming one after another, make a statement seem off point and odd…

Here’s the first graph of Secretary Clinton’s statement:

“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.”

“…off point… odd”?

Here are the first two graphs of President Obama’s statement:

“Good morning. Every day, all across the world, American diplomats and civilians work tirelessly to advance the interests and values of our nation. Often, they are away from their families. Sometimes, they brave great danger.

“Yesterday, four of these extraordinary Americans were killed in an attack on our diplomatic post in Benghazi. Among those killed was our Ambassador, Chris Stevens, as well as Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith. We are still notifying the families of the others who were killed. And today, the American people stand united in holding the families of the four Americans in our thoughts and in our prayers.”

“Gauzy platitudes”?

“… at the center there was a void,” Noonan observes. “What does this mean? What can be done? What should be done?

In the immediacy of tragic events, you don’t spend time searching for meaning. You can’t, because not even the president has all the facts yet. The first job should be to acknowledge the tragedy and attempt to put some context to the events, like another president did on January 28, 1986.

“Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss… For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much.”

That was President Reagan hours after the space shuttleChallenger disaster.

“Gauzy platitudes”? Not to me, and certainly not to Peggy, she wrote those words.

Noonan writes: “…American politicians have gotten too good at… “talking about loss. Eulogizing the irreplaceable,” and called for, “A little grit, please.”

That “grit” came in the form of Governor Romney’s much too hasty, and far too partisan criticism aimed squarely at, what Mr. Romney has often referred to as, President Obama’s “apology tour.” Once again, we have a political leader – without full knowledge of the facts and circumstances – speaking prematurely as Romney did in Florida when he characterized the embassy’s original statement, as “akin to an apology” and “disgraceful.”

Here is the full text of that original U.S. Embassy statementwhich, at the time it was published, unbeknownst to everyone including Mr. Romney, was intended to quell riots happening at that moment around several embassys in reaction to a stupid and hateful internet video aimed at stirring up trouble:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

“…akin to an apology… disgraceful”? asked three experts:

“John Murphy, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies presidential rhetoric and political language, said Romney was wrong to label it an apology.”

“Lauren Bloom, an attorney and business consultant who wroteThe Art of the Apology, said that… the embassy statement is ‘not an apology — quite the contrary, it’s a confirmation that the American people recognize the right to worship freely and will not accept religious bullying in the name of free speech.’ ”

“Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, a professor who studies international human rights and maintains the website Political Apologies and Reparations, a database of documents on apologies, said the statement is ‘not an apology.’ She said, ‘it is a condemnation of ‘abuse’ of the universal value of free speech. A condemnation is not an apology. … The Embassy statement also reaffirms two American values: the American value of respect for religious beliefs and the American value of democracy.’ ”

To her credit, Noonan takes Romney to task on this: “Think it through, take some days, and then come forth…”

The next morning, when the “liberal media” gave Romney an opportunity to step-it-back the Republican candidate for president doubled-down by saying that President Obama should not “apologize for American values.” But it’s not just Mr. Romney’s words. It’s his judgment in sticking by those words that concerns me. (Remember the critical comments he made in London regarding Britain’s security before the Olympics?)

In response to that judgment, Republican leadership went out of their way to distance themselves from Romney. “We mourn for the families of our countrymen in Benghazi, and condemn this horrific attack,” House Speaker John Boehner said.

The Moderate noted: “Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee who personally knew Stevens, refused to assign any blame to the Obama administration… Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell also declined to invoke Obama…”

Observing the “larger context,” Noonan writes, “In an age of technology, with everything disseminated everywhere instantly, it isn’t one man with a gun, but one man with a camera, or a laptop, or a phone… and no sense of responsibility” in spreading hate. (Something not lost on Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh in this country.)

While it’s a good point to consider, Noonan misses one vital ingredient.

“Democracy cannot succeed,” Franklin Roosevelt said, “unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

While we will never sway the hearts and minds of hardcore activists and assassins, political leaders have a duty to educatetheir citizens in order to prevent the kind of mass hysteria that seems to be playing out in pockets of the Middle East – a region, while moving toward democracy, remains lacking in basic education skills to make that democracy a living reality.

In the end, however, what sticks is Romney’s failed attempt at persuading voters using his “apology” argument with words that only sound off-putting and wrong.

In writing about the importance of a good speech in her 1990 memoir, (What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era)Noonan said, “A speech reminds us that words, like children, have the power to make dance the dullest beanbag of a heart.”

I don’t think anyone was dancing after Mr. Romney’s words.


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