The Washington Times
There is something I have long found vaguely off-key about the rhetoric encapsulated in the phrase “the greatest generation,” Tom Brokaw’s designation for the people who went off to fight and win World War II. It is not that their hardship and heroism warrant any lesser designation, but there is, indeed, something wrong with the word “greatest” – not as applied to them, but coming out of the mouths of us.
It is, in the end, complacent bordering on smug for us to presume to judge them the “greatest.” It is as if we are looking down upon them from a high place. In particular, it is as if we have reached the judgment that their greatness was the final greatness – that we are, in essence, above greatness, that we will never be called to it because, really, that sort of thing is over.
In the worst sort of nostalgia, “greatest” therefore amounts to a complaint. From our position of comfort, we envy them their opportunity to be the greatest. The example of their heroism has no practical relevance for our lives, because they got the big challenge. In short, while we grant them a place on a pedestal, we do not consider them as objects to emulate in our own lives.
Time to get over that. Now we ourselves have been awakened by a call to greatness, or at least, to do our best in the hope it will be good enough. The Olympian detachment that comes of the view that the whole of history lies behind one must now give way to engagement, with the dawning realization that plenty of history lies ahead and that we ourselves will make it, for better or worse.
I think there is no one for whom this has sunk in more dramatically than George W. Bush. As the saying goes, some are born to greatness, some aspire to it, some have greatness thrust upon them. In delivering the speech he did last week – the first test of his leadership under grave conditions, but hardly the last – Mr. Bush had greatness thrust upon him.
I came away from watching the speech with the impression that for the first time in his life, really, George W. Bush thought he knew why God had put him on this Earth. I have no idea how he viewed the presidency and the circumstances that led him from birth to the Oval Office, what he imagined himself doing there, what being the 43rd president of the United States was about to him. Now, I think we do know.
Near the end of the speech, Mr. Bush did something quite remarkable. He had just delivered this passage: “We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” Then he turned to the first-person singular to tell the story of the police shield he had been given by the mother of an officer killed at the World Trade Center. “It is my reminder of lives that ended and a task that does not end.”
He continued, “I will not forget the wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle.”
Now, he could have said, “We will not forget . . . . We will not yield. We will not rest. We will not relent.” That would have been fine. But in making it personal, he achieved something much bigger.
To put it in crass terms, he did much to dispel the lingering doubt – and there is no point in denying it was out there – that he himself, untested, was up to the task at hand. But that’s not all that happened.
I think that the blunt arrival of the first-person singular called out to each of his listeners to look into themselves and reach the same personal conclusion: that now is the time to rise to the occasion. The rhetoric of “we” is too easy. It invites the question, “what do you mean ‘we’?” The oratory of “I,” in this case, is much more demanding; it asks: How about you?
George W. Bush held up a mirror to his country Thursday night, forcing us to see that our lingering doubts about him are doubts about ourselves also. And in doing so much to dispel our doubts about him, he asked us to find what it takes to dispel our own self-doubt.