By Rich Gotshall
In today’s hyperpartisan political environment, critical comments — even suggestions — from people seen as opponents are dismissed out of hand or ridiculed in almost adolescent ways. Vitriol and bombast have replaced thoughtful and necessary dialog.
It would be easy to despair over the nation’s future, certainly in the short term but also in the long term, given the polluting nature of continuing toxic comments. Thus, at times like these, it is helpful to turn to history for words of advice that were instructive at the time and prescient when viewed from today’s perspective.
When John Kennedy was elected president, he replaced Dwight Eisenhower, a national icon. Of differing parties, it would have been easy for Ike to treat JFK as an enemy taking over a castle. Instead, the outgoing president did all he could to not only ease the transition of power but also to prepare the new president as best he could for the challenges that would lie ahead.
Then, on Jan. 17, 1961, days before Kennedy would be sworn in, Eisenhower delivered his valediction in a televised speech from the White House. While this farewell address is best remembered for its warnings about a military-industrial complex, the speech was far more and its message even more relevant to today’s audiences.
He opened with a call to think beyond today and to remember that contemporary actions have an impact for future generations. He said:
“As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.
“We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
Then he quickly added:
“Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.
“Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic and military strength. That table, though scarred by many past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certain agony of the battlefield.”
In conclusion, Eisenhower said: “We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”
Popular perceptions have never given Eisenhower his due as a writer. Yet, rereading some of his writings and speeches from his presidency shed new light on the depth of his thinking and the style of his prose. And while he did employ speech writers, he regularly edited and rewrote what they offered.
One speechwriter, after hearing the president speak, thanked the president for at least including some of the words he wrote. And which were those, the president asked. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen” was the reply.
Eisenhower left office more than a generation ago, but part of his legacy lies in the advice he offered just before he walked out of the White House for the last time. We profit by hearing those words again and would be wise to heed them.
Rich Gotshall is a retired journalist and Franklin resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.