On September 4, 2014, as the NATO summit convened in Wales, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron coauthored an op-ed in the Times of London. Its headline: “We will not be cowed by barbaric killers.” On January 15, a mere four and a half months later, the same coauthors had the good fortune to have another submission accepted by that august paper. Its headline? “We won’t let the voice of freedom be muzzled.”
One can’t blame politicians for message discipline. One also can’t help but note that their message is conveyed in the hortatory tone and declamatory voice used by politicians when asserting a condition contrary to fact. It’s not that Obama and Cameron are dissembling, exactly. Their determination may well be sincere. But they surely protest too much. People who aren’t cowed don’t spend a lot of time proclaiming they won’t be cowed. Leaders who really have strengthened the voice of freedom don’t need to reassure their electorates that they’re committed to doing so.
We in the West enjoy our freedoms. We occasionally appreciate them. If it’s not too much trouble, we’re more or less in favor of defending them. When the enemies of freedom kill innocents, we sympathize with them. But surely we are nagged by the unbidden thought—I suspect even Obama and Cameron are nagged by the thought—that while we like freedom, we may not really be up to defending it. And so we wonder if C. S. Lewis didn’t have it right: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
It’s true that we say “Je suis Charlie.” That’s better than saying nothing. But we do so only after the fact and in the safety of crowds.
“Je suis Charlie” is an echo, across half a century and from a neighboring country, of John Kennedy’s famous statement: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’ ” But “Je suis Charlie” is a plaintive and hollow echo of Kennedy’s proud and assertive boast of freedom.
Here’s how Kennedy continued:
There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. . . . All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Who today takes a proud stand for freedom?
Two who did, men of Kennedy’s generation, died last weekend. The achievements of Walter Berns and Harry Jaffa are chronicled elsewhere in this issue. Both understood that freedom was precarious and the American republic was precious. And both were students of Leo Strauss, and therefore understood the weaknesses of the modern accounts of freedom.
The life’s work of both was shaped by the problem identified by Strauss in Natural Right and History: Modern thought, most decisively in Germany, had abandoned the idea of natural right and of any claim that there might be reasonable grounds for an attachment to freedom. Strauss remarked in 1952 that “It would not be the first time that a nation, defeated on the battlefield and, as it were, annihilated as a political being, has deprived the conquerors of the most sublime fruit of victory by imposing on them the yoke of its own thought.”
Berns and Jaffa, each in his own way, sought to preserve that sublime fruit of victory. Whatever differences, important and transient, there were between the two of them, both understood that saving freedom required historical and philosophical rethinking.
Strauss’s discoveries in the history of political philosophy had the effect of liberating his students from the yoke of contemporary thought. But Strauss and his students understood—indeed, emphasized—that such a liberation could not mean simply ignoring the challenges to or wishing away the weaknesses of modern freedom. Berns and Jaffa each tried to work through the arguments and rediscover the history that could deepen our understanding of the conditions of freedom, and thereby inform and strengthen our commitment to freedom. The greatest tribute we could pay to Berns and Jaffa is to rededicate ourselves to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly advanced.
"If today’s extremist rhetoric sounds familiar, that’s because it is eerily, poignantly similar to the vitriol aimed squarely at John F. Kennedy during his presidency. And just like today, Texans were leading what some of them saw as a moral crusade. To find the very roots of the paranoid right of 2013, just go back to downtown Dallas in 1963, back to the months before the Kennedy assassination. It was where and when a deeply angry . . .” (Bill Minutaglio, Washington Post, November 21).
As Americans pause to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, they should not overlook the other fateful assassination that took place that same month. On November 2, 1963, South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered in Saigon in a coup carried out by a group of generals operating with the tacit approval of the U.S. government.
John Forbes Kerry is one of those upper-middle-class East Coast types of estimable lineage and impeccable credentials (St. Paul’s, Yale, U.S. Navy) whose tribal habits were the subject of the late sociologist E. Digby Baltzell (The Protestant -Establishment, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, etc.). Baltzell popularized the term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)—-although Kerry is Roman Catholic, not Protestant—and explored the historic WASP ascendancy in American business, education, cultural institutions, and government.
The Sunday after Kennedy was shot my dad and I drove downtown to Dealey Plaza. It was an apology of sorts since my parents had refused to let me skip school to see the presidential motorcade on November 22. We were standing on the grassy knoll between the Old Red Courthouse and the Triple Underpass when our neighbors from across the street—a man and his teenage son my age—walked up with a noose and began exhorting bystanders to go lynch Lee Harvey Oswald.
The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy is nearly upon us, and it feels as if Camelot has returned like Brigadoon. Many a navel is currently being gazed upon in the media in an attempt to wring some contemporary meaning out of JFK’s tragic end. Some of this was inevitable—the shelves of The Weekly Standard’s book section are straining under the weight of the latest conspiracy tomes—but an unsettling amount of the commentary has amounted to taking an American tragedy and using it as an excuse for partisan jeremiads.
For a brief moment last week, The Scrapbook felt a twinge of compassion for President Obama. The setting was Berlin. Readers will remember the extraordinary (and extraordinarily peculiar) sight in 2008 of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaking to a throng of 200,000 worshipful Berliners in the Tiergarten. No American candidate had ever before campaigned in a foreign country—especially one where spectacles of mass enthusiasm revive instructive memories.
President Obama, speaking earlier today at conference on mental health at the White House:
"There are other people who are leading by example. My great friend, Patrick Kennedy, when he was running for reelection back in 2006, he could have avoided talking about his struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction. Let’s face it, he’s a Kennedy," said Obama.
It has become increasingly clear that the Obama-era Democrats view every major societal event as a new invitation to spend money, centralize power, or both. The horrendous shootings in Connecticut have the Democrats lobbying not only for new legislation, but new federal legislation — and hence more federal power — rather than entrusting the passage of any such legislation to the states. Meanwhile, the damage from Hurricane Sandy has the Democrats looking to do the only thing that they might enjoy even more than enacting cumbersome legislation — spending borrowed money.<
Did John F. Kennedy really write Profiles in Courage? It’s a question that has been on the table ever since Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957, and with the death of Theodore Sorensen—Kennedy’s able speechwriter—the issue of authorship has again surfaced. It’s an appropriate time to add new elements to an old story.
Might voters replace another New England Kennedy with a Republican? A new poll, commissioned by the National Republican Congressional Committee and conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, shows that Rhode Island’s First Congressional District is in play, with Republican state representative John Loughlin tied with Providence’s Democratic mayor David Cicilline at 41 percent.
You might have thought that Kennedy kitsch was not likely to proceed much further beyond The Best LovedPoems of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, edited by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg (2005), or that the gold standard had long ago been established with Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye:Memories of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, edited by Kenneth O’Donnell (1972). But you would be wrong.