Obama and Ike: Readers Push Back

In response to this item yesterday, saying that Barack Obama's address at West Point was an intellectual descendant of Dwight Eisenhower's famous farewell address in 1961, three themes of complaint. They are: that I was too easy on Obama, too easy on Eisenhower, and not easy enough on Malcolm Moos. Here they come.

A reader says that Obama's speech was in fact a disappointment:

What I did see [of the speech] seemed to be 'stated baldly'(to use your phrase), not particularly inspired and framed to not upset the 'Fox News' crowd very much and his manner a wee arrogant at times.

Of course this was a speech to the military graduates, so I understand the appropriateness of projecting 'strength'. But in comparing even the quotes you highlighted with those of Pres. Eisenhower and Pres. Carter - I feel Pres. Obama comes up short. Your comment noting the different times, background and age between the current president and Pres. Eisenhower is certainly on point and true. Even more so, with the coming election Pres. Obama no doubt is careful not to give his opponents any ammunition in that war.

But I must say, as someone who supported, voted for and contributed money to his campaign several times - the speech continues my disappointment with the President on many issues. I don't think it was a 'brave' speech in any way, it said what it had to to not infuriate either his supporters or his opponents. That it didn't promote 'preemptive wars' was hardly a surprise, since he campaigned on that premise...

Another agrees that Eisenhower's farewell address was great -- but wonders why his Administration had not applied the same wise principles over the preceding eight years. Jerome Doolittle, of the Bad Attitudes site (and my colleague as a Carter administration speechwriter) writes in to say:

I also remember Eisenhower's farewell address, but have trouble getting too misty-eyed about it. Who had been president for the previous eight years? Who had sent White Star special forces teams to Northern Thailand just months before? Who was to tell the incoming president that the greatest threat to world peace facing him was Laos? Who made the unspeakable Dulles secretary of state and kept him in the job? Who sent thousands of "advisers" and billions in military aid to Diem after he violated the terms reached at Geneva by refusing to hold the national elections that he (and we) knew Ho Chi Minh would win?
Who blew the very real possibility of ending the Cold War by continuing the U-2 flights and making it impossible for Khrushchev to pursue the detente he was plainly seeking? Who let the other unspeakable Dulles gin up an invasion of Cuba and then left the whole mess on Kennedy's plate? Who was the only president of my lifetime who had the military knowledge, popularity and heroic stature to actually do something about that whole military industrial complexy thingy that upset him so?

But I agree--it was a swell speech.

A third wonders why I left out the speechwriter most often associated with the speech:

I have just finished reading your piece on Obama's speech at West Point. Comparing it to Eisenhower's Farewell Address was a nice touch, but I was surprised - especially given your history - that you didn't make reference to the speechwriter of the Eisenhower address. It was, as I'm sure you know, Dr. Malcolm Moos, then future President of the University of Minnesota. That speech was important enough - though shamefully ignored today - that like to see every opportunity taken to credit Dr. Moos. I was lucky enough to be a student at the University of Minnesota during his tenure as president there and cannot speak highly enough of his handling of the student unrest during those times. He hasn't received enough credit there either.

I agree that Malcolm Moos -- along with his speechwriting colleague Ralph Williams -- deserves lasting admiration for his role in shaping this speech. I've said so over the years and meant no slight in not making the point this time. (Think if he, rather than John Foster Dulles, had been Eisenhower's Secretary of State....) But in the context of yesterday's West Point address, it seemed even more important to note the similarities between Obama's world view and Eisenhower's -- rather than just with that of Moos and Williams.

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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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