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February 4, 2015


Let’s take an offbeat break from my usual offerings of what happens and doesn’t happen at the intersection of economics and government, Wall Street travesties, wage inequality, robotic production and the like. Let’s take a brief look at memorable presidential pronouncements.

Historians I have read write that “The times make the man,” i.e., Washington in Revolutionary times, Lincoln in the Civil War and Roosevelt in World War II, though somehow skipping “the times” and memorable pronouncements of Woodrow Wilson during World War I and afterwards, if he made any pronouncements historians deemed worthy of note.  Why? After all, we “won” World War I (though as some say, we merely postponed another world war for twenty years with our postwar mishandling of the Treaty of Versailles),so why is Wilson and pronouncements he made held in such relatively low regard by historians than other war time presidents and their “pronouncements for the ages?”  Why didn’t “the times” make this man?

I think it has a lot to do with what happened (or didn’t happen) in the years after World War I. At the end of World War I Wilson insisted that the Treaty of Versailles (whose generally harsh terms and French insistence on reparations Hitler later used as red meat to whip up German nationalism) include a plan for a League of Nations to settle international differences. The League was formed and had 53 members but the United States Senate would not approve of American membership in the League for fear that an attack on a fellow League member would pull the United States into another war. The war just concluded had fed isolationist thought; many Americans were opposed to (as Washington had put it some 123 years earlier) “entangling European alliances,” hence the Senate refusal to allow membership in the League.

Without American membership, and with rivalries between the 53 members who comprised the League, it never gained much prominence and had little influence in international matters by the late 1930s. It was replaced by the United Nations in 1946. We will never know whether our refusal to join the League so weakened its influence that thugs like Hitler and Mussolini with their Nazi and fascist gangs were emboldened to seize power and carry out their psychotic missions of murder and genocide. I have often pondered such a possibility, but the answer lies in alternative history – and alternative history doesn’t happen and is totally speculative.

As for presidential pronouncements generally, who can forget Washington’s Farewell Address only a few years before his death, and even more so, who can forget the Gettysburg Address delivered by Lincoln where  thousands of dead Americans were carried off the battlefield to their graves less than two years before his death, both pronouncements for the ages? My high school teacher made sure I didn’t forget the Gettysburg Address; I was required to commit this majestic speech which embodies the soul of America to memory and to recite it sans notes.

We have, of course, abandoned Washington’s warning not to become engaged in any entangling alliances with European powers what with our NATO membership and other “entangling” intergovernmental trade, commercial and banking alliances as well, and we are well on our way to abandoning Lincoln’s “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” language of his Gettysburg Address since corporations are now “people” per the Supreme Court (who could presumably be “men”) and the children of Bill and Melinda Gates are clearly not “created equal” with those of a black Mississippi sharecropper.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite presidential pronouncements came from my favorite president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Who can forget his ”All we have to fear is fear itself” speech or his December 8, 1941 speech to the Congress in which he described the Japanese attacks a day earlier as “a date that will live in infamy?” I won’t. I was in school the day after Pearl Harbor and didn’t hear it on the radio when he delivered it, but I heard it rebroadcast several times on the radio as well as in “Movie Tone News” at the local movie theater in our small Indiana town.  It was a powerful message and helped unite us in our outrage and determination to respond to such a cowardly attack by expansion-minded Japanese warlords. I didn’t know at the time that I would be personally involved later in this response.

My very favorite pronouncement of the many FDR made, and the pronouncement that has set my political compass and understanding of the role of government in it proper interrelationship with the people it governs ever since, is a statement for the ages, as follows:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much; it             is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Presidential pronouncements are important not just as recitations of historians. The foregoing pronouncement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, has been a rule and guide for me as an activist citizen for many years and provides a critical litmus test for me with which to evaluate every political and economic proposition submitted by members of the political class for legislative approval. Thus guided by such a standard, decisions to support or oppose bills in state legislatures and Congress are greatly simplified, i.e., if the bill fails FDR’s “test of our progress,” I am opposed to it. If it meets such test, I am for it.

Sadly, I must report that lately legislation both passed and to be passed by state and federal legislatures along with inane holdings of our 5-4 court mostly “add to the abundance of those who have much” and do not “provide enough for those who have little” amidst bickering, pretense and indifference to human need in our legislative halls and courtrooms – all to such a point that our democracy itself is endangered by our official pandering to petty self-interests.

If we are to “progress” in this day and age, we must resist such affronts to our democracy, which (as I often write) is one of the last few things worth dying for.    GERALD   E

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