Some people learn nothing, forget everything, and can't shoot straight

Garry Wills, in the New York Review of Books, compares Barack Obama’s speech in Tucson to Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg (via RealClearPolitics).  For realz!  Gaze on in slack-jawed horror:

In preparing his speech, Obama had called and talked to the hurt and the survivors. He could tell their personal stories. Michelle Obama invited the family of the murdered nine-year-old to visit her in the White House. Obama came to the speech from the bedsides of those who had been wounded. Their message to him was one of dedication: “They believed, and I believe, that we can be better.” This rang a bell with me. It reminded me of the lesson of the fallen that Lincoln took from Gettysburg—“that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” At Gettysburg Lincoln might have been expected to defend the North and blame the South—which is what Edward Everett did in the speech preceding his. Rather, the bulk of his speech was given to praising the dead and urging others to learn from them.

Wow–I bet no other public eulogies in American history from 1863 to 2011 “prais[ed] the dead and urg[ed] others to learn from them.”  Right on!  Except, the people Lincoln mourned were for the most part volunteers for a war against slaverypeople who agreed to risk their lives in the greatest political cause of their generation.  The people Obama mourned were civilians doing their grocery shopping and visiting with a Congresswoman.  This is not a criticism of Barack Obama or his speech, by the way–it’s a comment on Garry Wills’s apparent inability to think straight when he hears the siren song of Obama’s speeches.  They apparently are so seductive that Wills can’t actually hear their words or see their clear meaning.  (Remember about a year ago, when Wills stamped his feet about Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which was after all only a clear fulfillment of a campaign promise?)  In the words of our last president, “fool me once. . . shame on, shame on you.  Fool me–can’t get fooled again!

And pardon me for dropping a turd in the punchbowl, but if it were my child, or husband, or parent who had been gunned down senselessly, I would be some pissed off if anyone suggested that his or her death had any larger meaning.  I’m of the opinion that our earthly lives are all we have, so we have to make our own meanings of life while we have this precious gift.  Death is oblivion, so premature, violent death is an unforgiveable theft.  If anything happens as a result of this latest gun-fueled massacre of the innocents, let’s hope it’s something a little more important than rearranging the deck chairs seating chart for the State of the Union Address on the Titanic, or calls of more “civility” in the “discourse.” 

Outlawing 31-round clips for semiautomatic weapons might be a good place to start, since according to the news reports, six people were killed by bullets, not YouTube clips of the horses’ a$$es on Fox news.  (Oh, and by the way?  There was an armed bystander in Tucson last Saturday morning–except he never fired his weapon, and if he had he would have fired at the wrong man.  What do we say around these parts, friends?  Awesome!)

By the way, WTF with the NYRBTenured Radical has the goods on Gordon Wood’s strange, pissy review of Jill Lepore’s latest book.  It sure sounds like their stables needs mucking out.  Put some of those old nags out to pasture, and find some historians who have something fresh and useful to write.

0 thoughts on “Some people learn nothing, forget everything, and can't shoot straight

  1. I think he’s in his 70s, but he’s not doddering at all. He published a book that hit it big in 1969 when he was very young, and then didn’t publish any other books until his The Radicalism of the American Revolution came out in 1992, 23 years later. Since then he’s been on a roll, publishing a bio of Ben Franklin, and some popular histories on the Revolution era and the Early Republic, as well as some other books on the so-called “Founding Fathers.” So, he’s someone who has been extraordinarily active and productive in the past decade.

    My bet is that he sees whippersnappers like Lepore as crowding in on his turf. He’s had a forum in the NYRB for years, so maybe he’s cranky that a younger scholar has been so successful at writing for popular audiences. (What’s weird is that her latest book was published by a university press, when she’s published all of her other books with trade presses. I’m sure the editors at Princeton University Press should send Wood some flowers or at least some free books to thank him for the publicity!)

    It’s disspiriting to see one of the few historians with a national platform attack another, when there are so few of us who have that kind of audience. OTOH, he’s entitled to his point of view, and it appears like his disgust for her book is genuine! (The condescention that Tenured Radical noted in her comments was beyond the beyond, though.)


  2. I thought it was a halfway-decent speech, although I finally had to hop off my elliptical machine because I thought my hernia might blow out waiting for the per-or-ation to get underway. But you’se gotsta scribble a speech on the back of an envelope on your knees as your train makes its way up the foggy Potomac Valley, in my humble opinion, to crack the “Gettysburg Circle.”

    I got hired by a committee headed by a guy with the same name as me, so he became Ol’ Indyanna and I became Young Indyanna during the one year that we overlapped. He was very wont to pop his head into my office and ask questions about _Creation of the Republic_ as if it was breaking stuff. Which it was, I guess, when he took his comps in mostly other fields.

    But how, pray tell, could Lepore “take a course” from Bailyn when he’s long-retired, the last historian mandatorily retired by Harvard before the law got changed, and she’s already WAY too old to get into his Atlantic History seminar, which clings stubbornly (and ironically) to the “scholars in the early stages of their careers” trope? Just askin’.


  3. While the scientific enterprise obviously has its pathological aspects–like all human enterprises–one thing we do not have to any great extent is this kind of “hem kissing” demand from old codgers.

    My most prominent scientific work as a post-doc was partially situated in a field in which I had no training, no experience, and had never published in before. In fact, because of that unfamiliarity, I failed to cite some very important prior work in the area that my work–unbeknownst to me and my collaborators–built upon.

    Instead of being all pissed off and codgery at my impertinence and failure to appropriately embed my work in its historical context, the powers that be in this field immediately embraced me and my work.


  4. What gibberish from Gary Wills, who doesn’t bother giving us the faintest clue about “the cause” to which the dead civilians of Tucson gave their last hours. There was a cause? Oh, right, to make themselves fodder at a politician’s eulogy rally.

    I liked Obama’s speech well enough … even though I agree with you, Historian, about the “larger meaning” point: I figure other people feel differently about the murder of beloved family members and might take comfort from Obama’s assertions, which for me are presumptuous and borderline offensive. But come on, Wills, get a room. Or reread what you’re gushing before you publish.


  5. Thanks for this, Historiann! I was annoyed by those lines as well.

    It reminded me of when some of our Dear Leaders made speeches after 9/11 beseeching us on behalf of those who died in the WTC* that “their deaths should not be in vain”. (I can’t find exact quotes at the moment, but there were a number who said things along those lines, including Pataki.) And my immediate thought was, “The only people who want these deaths to have MEANING are the guys who were behind the killings!”

    Except for the rescue workers, those who died were just people going about their daily lives. (And no, the speakers were not just referring to the rescue workers, not that it would have made sense then anyway.)


  6. I don’t mean to ding Obama here (believe it or not!) My point here is once again the silly hero-worship and projection of Garry Wills.

    Obama could hardly walk out there last Wednesday night and talk about the nihilistic waste of it all. He had to offer hope and give the families of the injured and slain some kind of solace. I was just speaking about my own beliefs that there’s no joyous reunion in heaven, we must love and care for one another in this life as best we can.

    I desperately wanted to believe in an afterlife of some kind when a high school friend of mine died of cystic fibrosis at the age of 24. I dreamed about her a few times after she died, and was so happy to see her again and talk to her. I’m sure the death of a loved one would make some of the most hardened unbelievers like me want to believe in an afterlife of some kind.


  7. I vividly remember Gordon Wood’s review of Lepore’s FIRST book in the NY Review of Books (April 9, 1998). He loathed it, as I recall, and indeed it was just the kind of book Wood was unlikely to appreciate. I’m not a big fan of Lepore’s work, but I was surprised to see that Wood felt compelled to take another crack at her in his recent review.


  8. I think Obama gave the only kind of speech one can in that odd space of personal and public. But nowhere near Gettysburg (and I doubt he’d claim that!) FWIW, I took the bit about “larger meaning” — from Obama, and elsewhere in the sense that – “We need to do this because otherwise it is just a meaningless waste of people’s lives, and by acting in this way, we provide some good out of it.” But no one ever spells it out. Because people who are killed randomly are not killed for some “cause”. They have been killed, tragically. You can provide meaning through belief in an afterlife, but the call to action is always a way of giving meaning in the world.


  9. I do want to ding Obama on his speech. It was parochial, lacking vision, expected, etc.

    Clinton’s speech in Oklahoma City had gravitas, it broke the ice, it was an attempt to elevate the public discourse.

    In a week no one will remember Obama’s speech; people still remember Clinton’s.

    Why are giving Obama a pass here?


  10. Susan–I like your formulation. I’m sure that many family members would want to think that some good might come from their loved ones’ senseless murder.

    koshem Bos–I thought Obama’s speech was fine. It seemed to go over in the room at the time, and his trademark is unity, we’re all Americans, etc. (I would have been surprised if he *didn’t* do a credible job.) I don’t remember anything Clinton said in OK City myself–all I remember is that (like the chatter this week about Obama) the press agreed that he looked “presidential” again, in command, mourner in chief, etc. (I’m sure nothing was wrong with Clinton’s speech–I just don’t think it either was a Gettysburg Moment.)

    In short, it played into the media’s favored narrative strategies when writing/talking about presidents: once they’re down we must find a way to let them rise again so they can be kicked into the dirt again. It bothers me that so many were eager to let Obama’s (like Clinton’s) speech say something about him rather than the victims. But, that’s nothing that either President could control or prevent, in my view. Obama’s focus was on the victims, where it should have been.


  11. And, Meander: I missed that review, but I’ll have to look it up tonight!

    I guess what I find so baffling about the whole thing is that Wood’s angle in the latest review is that Lepore has no sense for the interplay of history and memory, and that she has no respect for memory and thinks only history written by professionals should count. When, of course, she is among the most sophisticated writers on history and memory. Her subject is always epistemology: how do we know what we know, how can we separate facts from cultural memory, and what does it all say about Us as Americans?


  12. I think we should give him a third chance. Invite him on the blog here to review her 2001 Journal of American History article that begins with a meditation on sitting in an archive holding onto a lock of Noah Webster’s hair. That’s about as Bailynesque as you can get!

    I don’t really remember Clinton on Okie City either, but I’m sure he did fine. One almost longs for the days when Theodore Roosevelt would have told his “handlers” that, no, he was *not* going to spend four nights in a mahogany Pullman Palace railcar to be the voice of the nation at some mine strike disaster in Utah. As I noted upthread, I thought Obama did fine, but the Emo presidency paradigm sometimes gets to be too much with you.

    Michael Kazin at Georgetown is quoted in today’s Times as saying that many of his students don’t even remember the Oklahoma City event itself.


  13. I wouldn’t expect our undergraduates to “remember” something that happened when they were ca. 2-7 years old. I don’t actually “remember” anything of political historical importance from ca. 1971-78. I don’t think I was aware of any national or geopolitical events until the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-81.

    I remember vividly the morning they executed Timothy McVeigh, for some reason.


  14. I imagined myself as the parent of the 9-year-old girl who died, the one who was born on 9/11/01, and quickly realized I would be really angry at people drawing on the dates of her birth and death as carrying some sort of broader meaning. I would have been mighty pissed also if the people parading the 9/11 flag around the country tried to bring that to her funeral. This was a unique person who died, not some symbol for national unity in times of crisis, that politicians in search of a cliche can draw upon to make an easy rhetorical point in a speech.


  15. It wouldn’t even be possible to give a speech today that was comparable to the Gettysburg Address. Six dead Americans killed by a madman looking to correct people’s grammar structure is just not on the same level of tragedy as thousands of young Americans slaughtering each other in a long and bitterly divisive Civil War. We live in interesting times, but not that interesting.


  16. I’m not sure you can really imagine how the parents of that nine year old felt. I know it’s easy to say “I wouldn’t have wanted…” but who knows, maybe they were “proud” that she was born on 9-11. You don’t know what meaning that had to them. And I thought a “these are the lessons we learned” is not over the top. I think personally having a president euologize my daughter might be kind of an honor, and the fact that so many people know who she is and know what interested her might be a comfort rather than nobody knowing beyond your family (hence why a lot of people go on to form charitable organizations with the name of their passed child). No where near gettysburg, but I did choke up a few times in the few minutes I overheard while hooking up my iPod or after switching back to radio when turning off my car.

    Also magazine limits continue to ignore reality. “Criminals” often find a way to go beyond the legal limits. Obtaining a larger magazine for a gun, even if it’s not legal in your state, is really easy. With 10 bullets he still likely would have killed people. If he’d had several smaller magazines he might have been more focused on the switching magazines and would not have been able to be taken down then. Really it comes down to we need to control the people not the hardware. Not sure if Arizona has a waiting period but that’s probably a good idea. As is more strict examinations. It’s more difficult to get a driver’s license in AZ than it is to get a handgun license.


  17. FrauTech–to be clear, KC said “I imagined myself . . .” and didn’t make any assumptions about what this child’s actual parents wanted or felt. I did the same. We were only writing from our perspective, as you are.


  18. I think personally having a president euologize my daughter might be kind of an honor, and the fact that so many people know who she is and know what interested her might be a comfort rather than nobody knowing beyond your family (hence why a lot of people go on to form charitable organizations with the name of their passed child).

    Again only speaking for myself, but when I was watching Obama’s speech and they kept cutting away to her parents, I put myself in their shoes, and what I felt (again just what I felt) was that while in some broad sense it would be nice to have a president give a speech in which my daughter was so prominently featured, on the other hand the whole thing would make me want to throw up. I’m just a few days removed from having MY nine-year-old killed for no good reason whatsoever. I think my grief at that moment would be very, very, very private, and I think I would hate having all these people who did NOT know her at all talking about her and trying to draw symbolic meaning from her death.

    I’m a parent and there’s nothing worse I can imagine than losing a child, especially like that, so I’m not judging them at all. I’m just saying that watching that, I had a visceral reaction against the way everything was being staged. Yeah, big speech, the 9/11 flag, lots of people coming to her funeral who probably didn’t know her, but at the end of the day she’s gone, she’s not coming back, and Tucson will quickly become just another talking point in a patriotic narrative that really has nothing to do with who she was.

    To me, the most effective moments of Obama’s speech were the points where he seemed to momentarily lose his composure talking about the young girl’s death, when his voice cracked just a little bit, which gave an indication that as a father himself he knows that there really are no words to deal with that kind of loss.

    To be clear, I thought it was a fine speech. I just had my own reaction to the cut-away shots of the parents in the crowd. I cannot even begin to fathom losing a child and then having a huge memorial service with thousands of people in attendance clapping and whistling and so forth. It’s not that the tone was necessarily wrong, it’s just that they didn’t know who this girl was, just her existence as a baby born on 9/11 caused them to draw certain meanings from her life. Watching that made me uncomfortable.

    Maybe I’m not expressing myself well here so I will just stop typing.


  19. “Really it comes down to we need to control the people not the hardware.”

    Why is it either/or? And if people can circumvent magazine regulations, why can’t they circumvent waiting periods and licensing requirements? Of course they can. Functionally, what’s the difference between licensing regulations and harware regulations? Nothing. They would work in tandem without either being perfect.


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