J.A. McHenry analyses the deliberate lies and hypocrisy to be found in Kennedy’s and Obama’s speeches.
Sweet Lies and a War Called Peace
Kennedy, Obama and Spin
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.
John F Kennedy, Commencement address, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 11 June 1962
Two men, two presidents almost fifty years apart, one a child of white privilege, the other a child of multiculturalism, both commanders in chief of an empire of military bases on every continent from the Arctic to the Antarctic, both world leaders of their times, both are consummate speakers, both are masters of spin..
The spin, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama used in their speeches, might differ but each in his own way achieved what, if not exactly impossible, was thought highly improbable in their times. They did it using powerful rhetoric.
Kennedy and his speechwriters Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and Theodore “Ted” Sorensen were masters of traditional empire building rhetoric that referenced ancient Greece and Rome in tones of imperial gravitas. His style was typified by his Inaugural Address in Washington in 1961.
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage . . .
Whilst I doubt that many Americans used the words, go forth, foe or tempered, they were hypnotized by his address. His command of classical rhetoric created the myth of a great leader and the people hung on his words.
Obama and his speechwriters Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan choose instead to toggle between the rhetoric of the founding fathers and the common touch depending on the circumstances. Obama’s speech on Race Relations; delivered at the National Constitution Center across from Independence Hall in Philadelphia started with ‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union. Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy.’ He draws on the style and dignity of the Constitution. Whereas the simpler language and common expressions of his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention draws on colloquialisms like fudge the numbers.
When we send our young men and women into harm’s way, we have a solemn obligation not to fudge the numbers or shade the truth about why they’re going, to care for their families while they’re gone, to tend to the soldiers upon their return, and to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war, secure the peace, and earn the respect of the world.
With these rhetorical strategies, Obama deftly places himself as a man of the people and an American. In fact what his spin on this piece is disguising is encapsulated in the line “to never ever go to war without enough troops to win the war”. He could have said, ‘When I become president, and I go to war, I want more troops.’
It is almost 50 years since Kennedy wrote his last speech in November 1963. He was due to deliver it on the day he was assassinated. Would he deliver the same speech today? Would the president of the country that believed it won the greatest war in history, a country in economic growth and with a politically naïve population make the same speech to the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council and Assembly? Would he make the same speech after two long, unsuccessful wars and one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression?
Parts of Kennedy’s speech might be even better received today than that which Obama presented on a similar theme. For instance the carefully scripted, almost poetically rhythmical “There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternative, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.” It sounds almost Shakespearean compared to Obama’s down to earth and school masterly defense of his tax compromise with Republicans in 2010.
Now if that’s the standard against which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about ourselves about how good our intentions are, how tough we are.
On the other hand, Kennedy’s boast about spending on nuclear missiles is unlikely to escape the notice of online critics today. The political capital invested in nuclear weapons has long since dissipated and his aggressive dialectic in the Dallas speech would be more likely to offend allies and American citizens than make them feel secure, particularly after the Chernobyl and Fukushima leaks and in the light of many more countries possessing nuclear weapons than in 1963.
. . . the strategic nuclear power of the United States has been so greatly modernized and expanded in the last 1,000 days, by the rapid production and deployment of the most modern missile systems, that any and all potential aggressors are clearly confronted now with the impossibility of strategic victory – and the certainty of total destruction – if by reckless attack they should ever force upon us the necessity of a strategic reply.
It is also doubtful that any president today would provide so much ammunition to his opposition and national enemies as this list of military expenditures from Kennedy’s remarks at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce in 1963, his last delivered speech.
In the past 3 years we have increased the defense budget of the United States by over 20 percent; increased the program of acquisition for Polaris submarines from 24 to 41; increased our Minuteman missile purchase program by more than 75 percent; doubled the number of strategic bombers and missiles on alert; doubled the number of nuclear weapons available in the strategic alert forces; increased the tactical nuclear forces deployed in Western Europe by over 60 percent; added five combat ready divisions to the Army of the United States, and five tactical fighter wings to the Air Force of the United States; increased our strategic airlift capability by 75 percent; and increased our special counter-insurgency forces which are engaged now in South VietNam by 600 percent. I hope those who want a stronger America and place it on some signs will also place those figures next to it.
Keeping in mind his military and nuclear weapons spending, as he has just outlined, leads to a clearer understanding of Kennedy as a manipulative rhetorician and spin doctor particularly in the light of his famous speech to the Commencement Address at American University on June 10 in 1963.
Kennedy started with his title. “Peace and Freedom Walk Together” In fact he used the word “Peace” 50 times in this one speech, a clever linguistic device that remained fixed in his listener’s minds rather than the actual content of what he said. In addition, he used the word “Freedom” 9 times at key points even though he had already created the CIA’s Domestic Operations Division that year. Freedom, but perhaps not so much for Americans.
Later in his speech, it is doubtful this gem of rhetorical absurdity would achieve anything like the effect it had in 1963. “To secure these ends, America’s weapons are non-provocative, carefully controlled, designed to deter, and capable of selective use. Our military forces are committed to peace and disciplined in self-restraint. Our diplomats are instructed to avoid unnecessary irritants and purely rhetorical hostility.”
Kennedy goes on to say with a straight face, “For there can be no doubt that, if all nations could refrain from interfering in the self-determination of others, the peace would be much more assured.” This was at a stage in his presidency when he was well on the way to be able to say to the citizens of Fort Worth ‘Our assistance to these nations can be painful, risky, and costly, as is true in Southeast Asia today. But we dare not weary of the task. For our assistance makes possible the stationing of 3.5 million allied troops along the Communist frontier’.
He concludes with the hypocritical ‘The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war.” As he said at the time, he was actively escalating involvement in Vietnam and he conveniently omitted to mention, Laos. In fact, as linguist and political researcher, Noam Chomsky said, ‘by 1962, Kennedy’s war had far surpassed the French war at its peak in helicopters and aerial fire power’.
It was a clever speech, a satisfying one to those who looked at Kennedy with rose tinted glasses even today. After all, he says “peace” 50 times leading many people to believe that the Commencement Day speech was proof that Kennedy was a peacemaker and that he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. But his actions as he states himself prove otherwise. Rather, his clever speech, aimed at mollifying increasingly radical students, is proof that he was, in his time, a master of double speak. Not a man for all seasons but a man for all men, who adapted his speeches to appeal to each of his audiences. A man who could make a speech that talks of war to one person and a speech that makes it sound like peace to another. As he says himself ‘No matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as the truth.’
President Barack Obama could not have existed in the America of 1963. In that year, Kennedy was just coming to the end of his procrastination on the issue of Civil Rights and the Act was not passed until 1964 after his assassination.
However, Obama’s speeches would in many ways, have been understood by the Americans of that time. His catch cry of hope and destiny was just as supportable then as now. In his Iowa Caucus Victory Speech in 2008, ‘Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.’ Later, in his speech delivered in Berlin in 2008, he says, ‘We are a people of improbable hope With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.’ Would the people of America prefer ‘People of improbable hope’ to‘Hope is the bedrock’ in 2013 or 1963? Does either statement have any meaningful content?
From an ideological and dialectic perspective, Obama reveals the political angles in his spin doctoring and rhetorical appeals to pathos at the Millennium Development Goals Summit in 2010. He says with all sincerity, “When a child dies from a preventable disease, it shocks all of our consciences.” That begs the question whether children killed in drone strikes do not. He spins the polio eradication campaign to make it appear to be a US led program. “We’re working with partners to finally eradicate polio.” When in fact it is an initiative of the WHO, UNICEF and Rotary. And U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have seriously hindered the final vaccination drive in Pakistan because of the suspicion that the CIA is using the vaccination campaign as a cover as it identifies potential drone targets.
Obama goes on with “instead of just treating HIV/AIDS, we’ve invested in pioneering research to finally develop a way to help millions of women actually prevent themselves from being infected in the first place.” However he does not share with his audience what the United States Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, PEPFAR, does with its ‘pioneering research’. Take Uganda as an example. As Scott Evertz, a leader in health policy practice, pointed out; previously Uganda had a comprehensive ABC (Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms) strategy which reduced the Aids rate from 15% to 6% of the population. Now PEPFAR provides much of its Aids funding to Christian religious groups promoting an abstinence-only strategy and actively attacking condom use. As a result, Aids is rising again.
Omission continues to be Obama’s strategy in informing the public about other foreign aid particularly that channelled through the Millennium Development Corporation. He speaks glowingly of the Corporation, and its help building rural roads in El Salvador. However, as reported in Voices from El Salvador, in 2012, U.S. Ambassador Maria Carmen Aponte said that approval of new MCC funds is dependent upon the passing of the P3 Law. Unions and indigenous people say that the P3 Law will privatize government services such as air and seaports, health care facilities, and education. The much-lauded roads are not for the local people but to enable investment in tourism and hotels on indigenous land.
Another strategy Obama uses is the appearance of even-handedness. Words like ‘balance’ allow Obama to place socially positive concepts next to more controversial political actions such as freedom and need for security or privacy protection and intercept communication.
That’s why, in the years to come, we will have to keep working hard to strike the appropriate balance between our need for security and preserving those freedoms that make us who we are. That means reviewing the authorities of law enforcement, so we can intercept new types of communication, but also build in privacy protections to prevent abuse.
Kennedy said more or less the same thing in his address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association in 1961 but uses a yes/but argument with a complete about face.
And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know. . . . Nevertheless, every democracy recognizes the necessary restraints of national security — and the question remains whether those restraints need to be more strictly observed if we are to oppose this kind of attack as well as outright invasion.
The strength of Obama’s speeches is evident in his success in two elections as the first black president in America. He is a president that like Kennedy is capable of flights of rhetoric and hyperbole that stir the imagination and inspire Americans. Like Kennedy, he uses sweet lies and shibboleths that appeal to his electorate as he prevaricates and plays with the truth. The content and historical context of their speeches is often almost identical. At times, their speeches could be interchangeable and in fact, Americans of 1963 and 2013 would probably see little difference in their politics or rhetoric as read in:
We are, and always will be, the United States of America.
It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day. . . To those who would tear the world down: We will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security: We support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
History will not judge our endeavors–and a government cannot be selected–merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these.
For of those to whom much is given, much is required. And when at some future date the high court of history sits in judgment on each one of us–recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our responsibilities to the state–our success or failure, in whatever office we may hold, will be measured by the answers to four questions:
First, were we truly men of courage–with the courage to stand up to one’s enemies–and the courage to stand up, when necessary, to one’s associates–the courage to resist public pressure, as well as private greed?
Secondly, were we truly men of judgment–with perceptive judgment of the future as well as the past–of our own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others–with enough wisdom to know that we did not know, and enough candor to admit it?
Third, were we truly men of integrity–men who never ran out on either the principles in which they believed or the people who believed in them–men who believed in us–men whom neither financial gain nor political ambition could ever divert from the fulfillment of our sacred trust?
Finally, were we truly men of dedication–with an honor mortgaged to no single individual or group, and compromised by no private obligation or aim, but devoted solely to serving the public good and the national interest.
The first is Barack Obama’s Victory speech in Grant Park, 2008. The second is John F. Kennedy’s Address before the Massachusetts General Court, January 9, 1961.
When History and the people of America take their rose colored glasses off, they will judge the endeavors and hypocrisy of Kennedy and Obama for what they are – excellent rhetoricians, poor human beings, 50 years apart, who but for the color of one’s skin would have been completely interchangeable.
“Ce n’est pas la première fois que je remarque combien, en France particulièrement, les mots ont plus d’empire que les idées.”
“It’s not the first time I’ve noticed how much more power words have than ideas”
George Sand, Indiana
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J.A. McHenry 30/05/2013