The New "God Bless America"

SecDef Robert Gates gave a truly excellent speech two days ago. It was at the Eisenhower Library in Kansas; it revived and applied to modern circumstances Eisenhower's famed warnings about the effects of untrammeled military spending; and -- if a fair indication of the Administration's and the Defense Department's intentions -- it gave reason for public optimism. The transcript is here, and it most certainly is worth reading. I've meant to mention the speech in a list of five or six "shockingly sensible statements about security" that have cropped up recently. I "will" do that in the next day or so -- perhaps during tomorrow's long flight to Shanghai.

However.

Brian Hurley, a retired Air Force officer, writes to point out one rhetorical device that is common in DC-bigshot speeches and that Gates in particular has really run into the ground. It appears in the standard "light humor" intro to his speeches -- in this form at the Ike event:

I'm pleased to be here for several reasons. First, it's always a treat to be someplace other than Washington, D.C. - the only place where, as I like to say, you can see a prominent person walking down lover's lane holding his own hand. Second, it's even better to return to my home state of Kansas - a place of little pretense and ample common sense....

What's wrong with this commonsensical observation? Hurley explains:

There is a classic opening in Gates' speech [he is actually referring to an earlier one I praised] that rankles me as much as "and may God bless America" rankles you. It's the obligatory "any place is better than being in Washington" jibe.

I think when leaders from Washington repeat that sort of thing, they are simply reinforcing a cheap stereotype and actually -- in perhaps small ways -- undermining their own ability to get things done. Yes, there are plenty of stories and deals that can make you sick. My own experience - in both the Air Force and in the private sector outside of Washington is...it's happening everywhere. Washington is just a bigger stage. But, when our own political leaders do this (and the senior people who are appointed by the elected leaders), we diminish the many very good things that many good people in Washington and in government generally are trying to accomplish. We reduce confidence in government to make needed changes, and we sustain the impression that Washington is a hopeless mess (auidence: "heck, if Secy Gates can't change the culture, we're doomed"). It's a cheap and harmful device. No one is blessing America here...

Hurley is right. I am sure that if Gates thought about it for a minute he'd recognize that as well. (For why this is like "God Bless America," see here and passim.) These speeches are too good to need any gimmickry.

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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.

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