The Magazine

Evil Under the Sun

Barack Obama and American exceptionalism.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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The two signature texts of American exceptionalism since World War II are John F. Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961 and a speech given by Ronald Reagan before he was president, at the first Conservative Political Action Conference, with a young and recently released POW named John McCain in the audience, on January 25, 1974. The two strike themes that go back to Winthrop, with the same notes of aspiration, inheritance, obligation, and destiny. "Kennedy's speech makes all the Puritan exceptionalist claims," said Calabresi, citing "rights flowing to man from God, the unique commitment of Americans to liberty," the torch being passed, which will light the whole universe, and "an apocalyptic battle between good and evil" with "God's work" being done here on earth. Reagan said the same things, only differently, and at a little more length. "I have always believed that there was some divine plan that placed this continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom," he said, following Winthrop, who stated, "God had chosen this country to plant his people in." As he concluded,

We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust on us two centuries ago in that little hall in Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the Dark Ages, Pope Pius XII said, "The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind." We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.

For most of our history, American exceptionalism has run in the veins of both parties, with the Democratic presidents of the first two-thirds of the 20th century being among its most noted proponents, vigorously asserting American power in the name of transcendent ideals. Franklin Roosevelt was quick to define the Axis powers as evil, and to declare, the day after Pearl Harbor, that "the American people in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory," and succeeding Democrats, such as Truman and Kennedy, would carry through on his values.

But after Vietnam, something broke in the Democrats, who took that costly miscalculation as a paradigm for crusading done anywhere, and came to believe that power was dangerous, that assertion was folly, and that patriotic displays were signs of a slavish obedience, simplistic thinking, unwarranted arrogance, and extremely bad taste. Hubert Humphrey, a Cold War liberal who ran and lost narrowly in the 1968 presidential contest, was perhaps the last nominee of his party to be wholly at home with the World War II language of righteousness and victory. In 1972, Democrats nominated George McGovern, a World War II hero who had evolved into a born-again pacifist and believed the United States had "blood on its hands." From then on, presidential elections tended to be conducted between a Republican who was an American exceptionalist and a Democrat who seemed to be less so, with the three elections in which the contrasts were least striking--1976, 1992, and 1996--being the three that the Democrats won. In 2000, though, the year of the tie, Al Gore, seen as a defense expert and hawk, was pitted against George W. Bush, who talked of a foreign policy that was "humble but strong." But by 2004, Bush had become Woodrow Wilson with bells on, and defeated John Kerry, who championed "nuance" in foreign relations and deference to international bodies and European elites.

Kerry had once served as lieutenant governor under Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, who in 1988 had run against George Bush's father in a classic campaign derided by critics as simple-minded but was based on a series of symbols relating to the concepts of evil, of force used against evil, and of America's mission and role in the world. One symbol the Bush campaign seized on was Dukakis's veto of a bill requiring teachers to lead students in public schools in the Pledge of Allegiance, which Dukakis saw as protecting a right of dissent, but others saw as a tacit endorsement of the belief that the country did not deserve having allegiance pledged to it. Another issue was crime, symbolized by a program Dukakis defended in which convicts ostensibly serving life sentences without parole were allowed out on unsupervised furloughs, in the course of which one murderer had raped a young woman and stabbed and beaten her fiancé--Dukakis refused to apologize or talk to the victims, though he had met often with prisoners and their families, leaving the impression he had a hard time telling the difference between predators and prey. He compounded this impression in the second presidential debate when, asked if he would support the death penalty if his wife should be murdered, he replied calmly, "I've opposed the death penalty .  .  . I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime." In the words of Roger Ailes, then the communications director for the Bush operation, "He became the defense attorney for the murderer and rapist of his wife." The public decided it preferred a prosecutor. Obama's meandering response to the question of evil at the Saddleback Forum seemed in some ways a Dukakis answer, unwilling to commit to the use of force in the containment of evil, and unsure of where moral lines lie.

John McCain betrays no similar doubts. "I know of no other country in the world with the generosity of spirit and the concern for fellow human beings as the United States of America, and I think that goes back to the very beginnings," he told a public service forum at Columbia University on September 11, 2008. "We are the only nation in the world that really is deeply concerned about adhering to the principle that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain rights. And those we have tried to bring to the world." But McCain was no longer speaking for all the Americans, as a candidate uttering those beliefs would once have been. The pollster Scott Rasmussen in the course of the 2004 election discovered a deep partisan divide on the issue of American exceptionalism. "Bush voters agree, by an 83-to-7 percent margin, that America is generally fair and decent," Michael Barone summarized Rasmussen's findings. "Kerry voters also agree but only by 46 to 37 percent. Fully 81 percent of Bush voters believe that the world would be a better place if other countries were more like the United States. Only 48 percent of Kerry voters agree. Almost all Republican voters believe in American exceptionalism. Only about half of Democratic voters do."

This explains the campaign of John Kerry, who tried to run both as the heroic vet and as the protester who had called out his country for sinister actions. When criticized for the latter, he complained (as had Dukakis) that Republicans were questioning his patriotism, which was not really the case. Anyone running for president must love his country, in that he wishes the best for it, and wants it to prosper. The question is whether Kerry and Dukakis were American exceptionalists, who believed in the civil religion of greatness and mission. And there is reason to think they were not.

Is Obama a patriot, like Dukakis and Kerry, in that he wishes the best for his country, and would do his best for it? Certainly, yes--the doubts about him involve his qualifications and his ideas, not his intentions. Is he an American exceptionalist, in the tradition of the Roosevelts, Reagan, and Kennedy? Probably not. On much of the evidence, he seems to share the beliefs of that half of his party who define the country in terms of its flaws and shortcomings, see force as a problem, and are embarrassed by patriotic displays. His wife has called the country a "mean" one, and said it had done nothing to give her pride in it until her husband had started to rise in the polls. He sees the country's tale less as a glorious effort to fulfill a great destiny than as a catch-up effort to atone for failures, which have always been numerous: "What makes America great has never been its perfection, but the belief that it can be made better," he has said, never quite saying it is good in this moment, or good when compared with what others were doing, or that it ever can be quite good enough.

At times, Obama has tried to reframe exceptionalism in his own image, or a kinder, gentler form of it, in which the country's achievements are largely domestic, and come about mostly through talking, and hope. In 2005, Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet waxed ecstatic over a speech that Obama gave at Knox College in Illinois, in which he reclaimed American exceptionalism for the progressive movement, as Kusnet put it, "telling the stories of how successive American generations abolished slavery, addressed the injustices of the industrial age, defeated economic depression and fought fascism," finding heroism not as Reagan did in wars or in private endeavors, but in "collective action to solve social problems here at home."

Two things should be noted about this new iteration: Little is said, and only in passing, of the American role in saving civilized Europe from being overrun by aggressive tyrannies, a prime source of pride for McCain, as well as the Reagans and Kennedys; and in the progressive rendition, "soft power" tends to reign unopposed. Here is Obama himself on how progress is made in the world and this country:

Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened except somebody somewhere was willing to hope .  .  . a group of patriots declaring independence .  .  . slaves and abolitionists resist[ing] that wicked system. .  .  . That is how the greatest generation .  .  . defeated fascism and lifted itself up out of the Great Depression. That's how pioneers traveled west.

In fact, the pioneers' road to a "better life" in the West was marked by the slaughter and/or displacement of Native Americans; the Committees of Correspondence were all very well, but independence was won over eight years of battles; fascism was finally defeated by the force of arms; and while abolitionists and brave slaves did their part in laying the predicate, slavery itself was put to the sword by the Union Army, in a war that killed 660,000 Americans, and whose first three years were marked by mistakes, misjudgments, and missed opportunities that make the war in Iraq seem well-run by comparison. The armed forces themselves seem to loom small in the mind of Obama, perhaps the reason why, earlier this year, when exhorting the young to public service endeavors, he did not mention a career in them as a valued alternative. In his world, which seems to resemble the Peaceable Kingdom, intentions and words do all the heavy lifting.

Obama's notorious speech in Berlin reinforces these elements: Hope can solve anything, values are relative, and power has nothing to do with the ultimate end. Berlin was saved, he says, because "Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle." In fact, the Germans had little chance to do otherwise: They tried to conquer the world, were bombed into rubble, were occupied, and then faced being overrun by the Soviet Army. Good and evil are relative: "The two superpowers that faced each other across the wall of this city came too close too often to destroying all we have built and all that we love." But it was only one superpower that caused all the problems, that "liberated" the countries conquered by Hitler by conquering them in turn; that tried to starve Berlin, and force the West into submission, that put up the Wall, put up the barbed wire, and shot those who tried to escape. And, of course, hope conquers all: "People of the world--look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one."

In fact the world has never stood "as one," so it has never faced a challenge of any description, and has never done a thing for its suffering people, in Berlin or anyplace else. During the Cold War, the world was as two (or sometimes it seemed at sixes and sevens) and Berlin was saved only when one side beat the other, after more than four decades of testing and tension, by the threat and the pressure of force. Berlin was saved because Truman sent in the Air Force, because Kennedy was willing to risk war over Cuba, and because Reagan went ahead with his defense buildup and missile deployment, while liberals screamed every step of the way. Hope can do wonders, but the American military has been a more reliable agent of human deliverance. "Conflict-resolution theory posits there are no villains, only misunderstandings," writes Victor Davis Hanson, but military history suggests otherwise. The Berlin speech was marked by "reoccurring utopian assumptions about cause and effect--namely, that bad things happen almost as if by accident, and are to be addressed by faceless, universal forces of good will." This has not been the view of America's heroes, who have always believed that evil exists, and the United States exists to confront it. How will America--and the world--fare with a president who rejects this tradition? We may be about to find out.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.