No American leader’s public statements were up to the task or equal to the moment this week. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama were appropriately full of high praise and sentiment for the four U.S. diplomats gruesomely murdered in Libya. The four can’t be praised enough: They put themselves in harm’s way for their country.
But both Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Obama’s remarks, after the tributes, were marked by the kind of gauzy platitudes that, coming one after another, make a statement seem off point and odd. Both shied away from central issues. Violence is “senseless,” yes, and we believe in religious tolerance, true. But at the center there was a void, and the void was meaning. What does this mean? What do we do? What can be done? What should be done?
You know what American politicians have gotten too good at? Talking about loss. Eulogizing the irreplaceable.
A little grit, please.
Mitt Romney came under fire from many, including me, for speaking too soon and in a way that was immediately critical of the administration.
Guys, timing. Dignity. Restraint. Tragedy. Painful headlines, brutal pictures. Long view. Bigness. Think it through, take some days, and then come forth with a cool, detailed, deeply pertinent critique that will actually help people think about what happened.
Granted, the U.S. Embassy statement from Cairo was embarrassing, a verbal cringe. It was marred by the baby talk that disfigures our public discourse. We are so sorry if you’re hurting, we’re really sad someone’s hurt your feelings. Maybe we should just give in and reduce our formal communiqués to something more easily tweetable, like emoticons: “America on your feelings and your need to assuage them by murdering our ambassador :-(”
And look, all this did have that special sound of the Obama administration, did it not?
However. The statement was written by a person or persons who no doubt feared they’d be under siege and in fact soon were, and over some idiot’s video. You have to give some room to people in circumstances so frightening and bizarre.
Mr. Romney’s appearance Wednesday morning seemed to me a metaphor for what is not yet right about his campaign. The setting—the deep blue curtains, the American flags, the dignified podium, the handsome straight-backed candidate—was perfect, presidential. The Romney campaign cares a lot about the picture, just as the White House does: Everyone in politics is too visual. But the thoughts, content, meaning—these are given secondary attention, when in fact they are everything. Get that right and all else will follow.
Republican candidates for president labor under a disadvantage, and we all know what it is. Mainstream media is stacked toward Democrats and against Republicans, toward liberalism and against conservatism. That means Republicans who win have to break through the prism with the force of their thoughts, their words, their philosophy. This is hard. The picture is part of it. But the rest is the heart of it.
What is needed from Mr. Romney now, or soon, is a serious statement about America’s role and purpose in the world. If such a statement contained an intellectually serious critique of the president’s grand strategy, or lack of it, all the better. As far as I can tell, that strategy largely consists of spurts of emotion and calculation from his closest aides, and is not a strategy but an inbox.
Mr. Romney might also contemplate this, because it will soon be on the American mind: Our embassies under siege in the Mideast gives us a sense of what a war with Iran would look like. It would be bloody. Not neat, not surgical, but bloody.
The world is very hot right now. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to lower the temperature.
As for Mr. Obama, he didn’t help himself with his snotty comment on “60 Minutes” that Mr. Romney has a habit of shooting first and aiming later. He could have been classy and refused to take a shot. But he’s not really classy that way.
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Two closing thoughts, on larger context.
Whatever the exact impact of the anti-Muhammad hate film that went viral, we have entered an age of would-be Princips.
Gavrilo Princip of course was the assassin who killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on June 28, 1914. He was 20, largely friendless and small in stature. He pulled the trigger that killed the archduke which led to the ultimatums that brought the war that misshaped the 20th century. From his act sprang nine million dead, Lenin at the Finland Station, the fall of Russia, the rise of communism, World War II, the Cold War . . .
Maybe all those things would have happened anyway, one way or another. We’ll never know. All we know is how it did begin, with one young man and a gun.
Now in the age of technology, with everything disseminated everywhere instantly, it isn’t one man with a gun but one man with a camera, or a laptop, or a phone.
To be a Princip is to feel power, whatever the cost to others. It is to need to get your point out there, whatever the price others pay. A Princip has a high sense of authority—he is in possession of urgent truths—and no sense of responsibility.
The maker of the videotape that contributed to the rioting in Egypt is a would-be Princip, as is the American pastor, Terry Jones, who burned the Quran.
We are going to have to think about antidotes to and answers for the new Principism. Because it’s not going to go away.
This week I quoted Paul Fussell’s masterwork, “The Great War and Modern Memory.” He spoke of what came to be, in Europe, the enduring symbolic meaning of the summer of 1914, the last summer before the war. It was the best in years, sunny and stormless, and later, in the trenches, the great writers of World War I, Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, would remember it as a demarcation point between innocence and horror. This is comparable to the poignantly beautiful Sept. 11, 2001, a day so clear you could see for miles, a day everyone in New York remembers as a demarcation point between one world and another.
Like many historians and writers on that war, but with greater style, Fussell noted how everyone was expecting something different. No one was expecting what happened. In July 1914, the big desk in the British cabinet room had been strewn with maps on which were marked battle lines for the coming war. It was to be in Ulster, where everyone had long known an Irish civil war was about to break out: “Enter Sir Edward Grey, ashen faced, in his hand the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia.”
Those in American politics have long had their desks strewn with economic reports and unemployment data, because everyone knew the election is about one thing, the economy. There were stories, just before 9/11/12, about how foreign policy had disappeared as an issue. And now this will be, to some serious degree, a foreign policy election. History is a trickster, it never loses its power to take us aback. We know this in the abstract. It’s somehow always startling in the particular.