Every big speech has a text and a subtext. When Ronald Reagan spoke at Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, in 1984, his text consisted of a remembrance of what had happened there on the beaches on that day in 1944. He spoke of the efforts of the English and Scots brigades, the Americans, the French; he lauded the U.S. Rangers who had clawed their way up to the top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. “And in seizing back this soil,” he said, as he stood on it, “they seized back the continent of Europe.”
It is the text that is remembered: “These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc.”
But it was the subtext of the speech that was most important, that contained the speech’s true purpose. The subtext was a message aimed at the leaders of the West and the people of Europe. It was: Fellow NATO members, you must remember that just as our fathers beat back the totalitarian Nazis, we now must beat back the totalitarian Soviets—and we can do it, we can triumph if we hold fast, hold firm and stand together just as our fathers did 40 years ago.
That message was important: In those days NATO seemed on the verge of breaking up over disagreements on how and even whether to resist the Soviet Union. Europe roiled with anti-American peace marches. The Pointe du Hoc speech was not a commemorative event but a speech intended to exhort, persuade, and move history.
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President Bush will go to Normandy this weekend, to speak at the American cemetery there. Is he foolishly using a stage President Eisenhower used to such benign effect in 1964, that Mr. Reagan used to such famous effect in 1984, and that Bill Clinton also used? Isn’t the stage already cluttered with presidential ghosts?
No. Mr. Bush and his people like the high wire when they think it promises to raise their standing. A presidential speech in Normandy is by definition an event; it ensures wide, broad and lengthy press coverage. The cameras can’t resist the rows of white crosses, Normandy brings out the inner Spielberg-filming-Private-Ryan in every network producer. So the Bush speech will receive big coverage.
Does Mr. Bush fear comparisons? If he did they wouldn’t have scheduled it. Mr. Bush’s people have a clever way of positioning things. They’ll assume no one remembers what Ike said or Mr. Clinton said, and as for Ronald Reagan, Mr. Bush will probably take care of that problem by quoting him, lauding him and putting him away like a pretty Christmas ornament in an old brown box.
Mr. Bush always wants to bring big meaning to big events. He likes to say important things. This is not true of all politicians, and he does not always succeed. No one really remembers the meaning of his acceptance speech in the summer of 2000; no one remembers the meaning of the speech he gave when the election was resolved the following December. In both cases he said too many things, and they didn’t seem like big things; at any rate, people left with a blurry sense of what had been said.
But his speeches since Sept. 11 have mostly been clean, straight bullets. And that’s probably what he’ll do at Normandy, a clean, straight bullet.
I say that in part because that’s what his speech was Wednesday, in Berlin—not only a bullet but a blast.
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It was the big speech of the trip, the one I’d been told to watch for a few weeks ago when I asked the White House where the primary statements would be made. You can add Mr. Bush at the Bundestag to the list of speeches with a text and a subtext. I think you can also add it to your small list of great speeches of the 21st century. I think Mr. Bush at the Bundestag is going to be remembered for a long time.
The Text: The American president, at a heightened and dramatic time in world history, travels to Europe to speak to its people of our continued friendship, ties and heritage, and to underscore our shared destiny; and to demonstrate in the process that Mr. Bush, though not a world traveler, is acquainted with the demands and disciplines of high diplomacy; that he is about to demonstrate the seriousness of his leadership by signing an arms agreement with the Russians that reflects the end of old enmity and the beginning of alliance; and that the signing itself shows his desire for and ability to achieve a safer world.
The subtext: Mr. Bush is trying to communicate to European elites that American actions, views and plans on Islamic terrorism are not a threat to Europe but its salvation. He is trying to tell Europe to open its eyes, see the threat, join the cause. He is trying to convince them that this is not America and Israel vs. the world but civilization vs. madmen. If he cannot convince the elites he may at least win new support from the people of Europe—he’s talking to them too. And he is attempting to rally the American people again, using a European stage to drive home his worldview and display what he hopes will be perceived back home as growing personal stature.
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A look at some of the speech.
“I am honored to visit this great city,” Mr. Bush said of Berlin. “The history of our time is written in the life of Berlin. In this building, fires of hatred were set that swept across the world. To this city, Allied planes brought food and hope during 323 days and nights of siege. Across an infamous divide, men and women jumped from tenement buildings and crossed through razor wire to live in freedom or to die in the attempt. One American president came here to proudly call himself a citizen of Berlin. Another president dared the Soviets to ‘tear down that wall.’ ”
Good stuff. It reminds the audience that America is Germany’s longtime friend—the airlift, the war against communism. It contains an implicit reminder: Standing with you cost us plenty, but we paid the price because it was right. (Side message to America: Happy Memorial Day.)
Mr. Bush praises the new Germany “made whole”—an elegant reference to unification. He then erects a generational platform from which to make his points, the same platform Mr. Reagan used in Normandy:
“On both sides of the Atlantic,” says Mr. Bush, “the generation of our fathers was called to shape great events—and they built the great trans-Atlantic alliance of democracies. They built the most successful alliance in history. After the Cold War, during the relative quiet of the 1990s, some questioned whether our trans-Atlantic partnership still had a purpose. History has given its answer.”
This got applause. Mr. Bush then jumps to today:
“Our generation faces new and grave threats to liberty, to the safety of our people, and to civilization, itself. We face an aggressive force that glorifies death, that targets the innocent, and seeks the means to murder on a massive scale.”
Here we go. The subtext in full force: Europe, wake up!
“Those who despise human freedom will attack it on every continent. Those who seek missiles and terrible weapons are also familiar with the map of Europe.”
“Are also familiar with the map of Europe” is a delicate but direct way of saying: Guess who’s next?
Mr. Bush continues: “Like the threats of another era, this threat cannot be appeased or cannot be ignored. By being patient, relentless and resolute, we will defeat the enemies of freedom. . . . Together, Europe and the United States have the creative genius, the economic power, the moral heritage, and the democratic vision to protect our liberty and to advance our cause of peace.”
Don’t be pessimistic, he’s saying, we can do it, we’ll get through this. But only if you get serious and face the facts.
He reminds Europe that for all her pain she has been invincible. “From the Argonne Forest to the Anzio beachhead, conflicts in Europe have drawn the blood of millions, squandering and shattering lives across the earth. There are thousands, thousands of monuments in parks and squares across my country to young men of 18 and 19 and 20 whose lives ended in battle on this continent. Ours is the first generation in a hundred years that does not expect and does not fear the next European war. And that achievement—your achievement—is one of the greatest in modern times.”
And so we know peace is winnable. We see this in the rise of the European Community, which is not seen by America as a rival but as living proof that “old hostilities” can be ended.
He asserts that NATO expansion will make Europe more secure; he commits American backing for membership for all European democracies; he asserts as a shared mission the encouraging of Russia to see its future “in Europe, and with America.” This echoes Mr. Bush’s statement in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last June, in which he said he had told President Putin in their first meeting that radical Islam was a threat to Russia, not the West. “Russia has its best chance since 1917 to become a part of Europe’s family. Russia’s transformation is not finished; the outcome is not yet determined. But for all the problems and challenges, Russia is moving toward freedom.”
So: together, Europe and America have transformed the Soviet Union into free Russia. And let us now discuss more deeply what we must again do, together, to survive:
“For the United States, September the 11th, 2001, cut a deep dividing line in our history—a change of eras as sharp and clear as Pearl Harbor, or the first day of the Berlin Blockade. There can be no lasting security in a world at the mercy of terrorists—for my nation, or for any nation. . . Together, we oppose an enemy that thrives on violence and the grief of the innocent. The terrorists are defined by their hatreds: They hate democracy and tolerance and free expression and women and Jews and Christians and all Muslims who disagree with them.”
He says that NATO’s defining purpose now is facing down a threat as great as Europe has faced in the past. Like the Nazis, who threatened Europe by killing “in the name of racial purity,” or the Soviets, who threatened Europe “in the name of class struggle,” our new enemy kills “in the name of a false religious purity.”
The answer is unity. “In this war we defend not just America or Europe; we are defending civilization itself.”
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Down to the nitty-gritty:
“The evil that has formed against us has been termed the ‘new totalitarian threat.’ The authors of terror are seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Regimes that sponsor terror are developing these weapons and the missiles to deliver them.” If these regimes perfect their capabilities, he says, nothing will stop them. They will use them.
“Wishful thinking might bring comfort, but not security. Call this a strategic challenge; call it, as I do, axis of evil; call it by any name you choose—but let us speak the truth.”
This is deft. Those who have abjured the phrase “axis of evil” and made their unhappiness with it into a symbol of their opposition: Fine, make up your own phrase, what matters is the facts.
“If we ignore this threat, we invite certain blackmail, and place millions of our citizens in grave danger. Our response will be reasoned, and focused, and deliberate. We will use more than our military might. We will cut off terrorist finances, apply diplomatic pressure, and continue to share intelligence. . . But make no mistake about it, we will and we must confront this conspiracy against our liberty and against our lives.”
What Mr. Bush is saying is simple: We will not back down, we cannot back down, we cannot ignore this threat and survive.
He asks each nation of Europe to make “hard choices” about financial commitments to help the war on terror. He calls for the protection of Israel, the creation of a state for the Palestinian people; he insists peace in the Mideast is possible, points to old hatreds in Europe in which foes became partners and allies.
He says that “poverty doesn’t create terror—yet terror takes root in failing nations that cannot police themselves or provide for their people.” And so we must help—through trade expansion, and humanitarian aid. “We have a duty to share our wealth generously and wisely.”
“Members of the Bundestag,” he says, “we are joined in serious purpose . . . on which the safety of our people and the fate of our freedom now rest. We build a world of justice, or we will live in a world of coercion. The magnitude of our shared responsibilities makes our disagreements look so small. And those who exaggerate our differences play a shallow game, and hold a simplistic view of our relationship.”
We are more than partners and allies, “we are heirs to the same civilization. The pledges of the Magna Carta, the learning of Athens, the creativity of Paris, the unbending conscience of Luther, the gentle faith of St. Francis—all of these are part of the American soul. The New World has succeeded by holding to the values of the Old.”
This is not only liltingly fact-filled; it has, as Henry Kissinger is said to have said, the added benefit of being true. And while Mr. Bush is citing religio-cultural markers, he is also nodding to constituent groups back home.
“Our histories have diverged, yet we seek to live by the same ideals. We believe in free markets, tempered by compassion. We believe in open societies that reflect unchanging truths. We believe in the value and dignity of every life.”
This is known as complimenting the other guy by suggesting he shares your best beliefs. It’s not quite true, but it reminds him of what he ought to believe in. In any case, no one in the Bundestag is going to stand up and yell, “Hey, we don’t believe in the dignity of life, buddy!”
“These convictions bind our civilization together and set our enemies against us,” Mr. Bush ends. “These convictions are universally true and right. And they define our nations and our partnership in a unique way. And these beliefs lead us to fight tyranny and evil, as others have done before us.”
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We cannot afford ambivalence, Mr. Bush told Europe. We must not create or have faith in false equivalencies. We have to stay together to stay safe—but if we stay together we’ll be safe.
They will hear it in Europe. We’ll see if they will absorb it, or come to agree with it, but they will certainly hear it.
And that’s a good start. Watch for Mr. Bush to underscore his message in Normandy.