Today President Obama’s second term begins in earnest, with a public swearing-in ceremony and a traditional inaugural address. There is and will be much written about what Obama said and what he should have said. No doubt the president has his plans for a second term, and his inaugural address was shaped in large part by his intentions. But another way to prepare such an address is for the president to imagine what he would want to be able to say in his farewell address, or his last remarks as president.
As it happens, this past week marked the 60th anniversary of Harry S. Truman’s farewell address to the American people, as he prepared them for the transition of power from the Democratic Party’s Truman to the Republican Party’s Dwight D. Eisenhower. As is often the case, Truman offers lessons of his own for modern presidents, but because of certain historical conditions he probably has even more to say for someone like Barack Obama. Both Truman and Obama had taken over from presidents who began their term in peacetime and would go on to prosecute America’s participation in a war that necessitated major changes in the country’s approach to national security, leaving that legacy to senators who rose suddenly and unexpectedly to the White House.
Watching political developments unfold in the Middle East—from Libya’s post-Qaddafi chaos to the growing authoritarianism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Nouri al-Maliki in post-Saddam Hussein, and now the violent dissolution of post-Bashar Assad Syria—it is easy to despair of the possibility of real democracy taking root in the region or to pine for the days of the strongmen. Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, offers a must-read counterpoint in the new issue of Foreign Affairs. She reminds us that the process of democratic development was not very smooth in Western Europe either—that in fact it took decades, even centuries.
She offers the examples of France, Italy, and Germany: all now well-established liberal democracies but at one point they were anything but.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Daniel Inouye, the son and grandson of Japanese immigrants, was 17. “I was filled with grief as I came to the realization that the pilots who had dropped the bombs were people who looked like me,” he later wrote, as recounted in the Washington Post. He rushed to the scene to help the injured. Two years later, when Japanese-Americans were permitted to serve in the army, Inouye dropped his studies and enlisted with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, with whom he would deploy to Italy and earn the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart, and later the Medal of Honor.
So when he warned at the 1968 Democratic National Convention of a “retreat from the responsibilities of citizenship,” he had all the authority in the world to do so. In the interim, he had been elected to represent Hawaii in Congress beginning the day Hawaii became a state, and then was elected to the Senate a few years later. Inouye died yesterday at the age of 88. Perhaps this week as much as any, as the country recovers from the tragedy in Newtown, it’s worth remembering that the nation also produces men like Daniel Inouye–men of uncommon courage and devotion, who exemplify national service. Here is the summary of his war heroics from his Medal of Honor citation:
In 2009, when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was pointed out that his nomination for the award almost perfectly coincided with his inauguration as president–that is, he was given the award not for anything he had done, but rather for what the Nobel Committee wanted him to do. Hoping for American surrender in the Middle East and capitulation in the war on terror, the Nobel Committee assumed Obama shared their penchant for appeasement and decided to nudge him along.
Since there are often candidates for the prize that actually deserve it, this did not go over all too well. Yet the Nobel Committee has done exactly this again, awarding this year’s Peace Prize to the European Union for what it hopes the union will–or, more accurately, won’t–do. The commission ostensibly gave the EU the prize for completing European integration and reconciliation after the two world wars, stressing that today war between France and Germany is unthinkable. Of course, as Max noted, the Second World War may have revolved around the violence and depredations in Western Europe, but peace was delivered by Americans and Russians most of all. (Speaking of Russians, this has been a momentous year in the Russian people’s willingness to challenge the thugocracy of Vladimir Putin; was there no Russian thought worthy of the prize by the Nobel Committee?) As the New York Times reports, the committee was open about the real reason for the prize: