A Big Day: Changing My Mind on "God Bless America"

Starting with one of George W. Bush's early State of the Union addresses six or seven years ago, I have been waging my lonely campaign against the use of "God Bless the United States of America" at the end of presidential addresses to mean little more than, "The speech is over now." I am all in favor of God blessing America! I just don't want all speeches to have to end this way. Thanks to a reader note, I've now also seen this Time magazine item from 2008, confirming my view that Richard Nixon was the first president to use this ending as a noticeable device, but that Ronald Reagan was the one who made it tic-like and obligatory.*

After yesterday's photographic proof that Barack Obama deliberately writes out this ending to his speeches, rather than ad-libbing it on, a reader wrote to say that he was in fact glad to hear the president talking this way. His argument:

I have read your posts decrying the empty habit of American politicians ending every speech with "God Bless the United States of America" or some such thing.  Regarding the decline of American political rhetoric, you have a point.  But President Obama's use of this ending, forcefully and prominently delivered, has a larger purpose I think, which is to inoculate him from the scurrilous charge Republicans have in recent decades leveled at Democrats, that they are somehow anti-God. 

I am not saying Obama doesn't believe what he's saying; I think he does invoke God's blessing on America.  I am suggesting he does it publicly and loudly to say:  I am patriotic, I love this country, this we share.  Perhaps if he owns this phrase, as it seems even the right-wing noise machine has allowed him to do without challenging his sincerity, it will someday lose its nasty undertone when used by right-wing demagogues:  I love this country, I love God, and my (liberal, Democrat) enemies do neither.  Then perhaps you will get your wish, and politicians will no longer feel compelled to end every speech with GBtUSA.  However, that may be a long time coming.  Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the POW/MIA flag still flies everywhere, as if there were POWs in Southeast Asia still, with a visual political significance not unlike the GBtUSA ending:  I love our troops (and those liberal Democrats do not).

OK. It's a fair point. I will now concede that most of President Obama's addresses (within the territorial U.S.) are likely to end with these words -- and that there's a larger logic to his approach. I'll put the campaign on hold until I can work on his successor.
* For instance, from the Time piece: "Thirty-five years ago today [ie, April 30, 1973], something remarkable happened: A U.S. President concluded a major address with the words "God bless America." Today, that would not be a big deal. At the time, however, it was unprecedented. In fact, it was the first time in modern history that it had happened."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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