Just last month, I had the honor of speaking to three classrooms of cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point – the same venue (although for me, much smaller audiences) from which President Barack Obama delivered his Afghanistan policy speech last week. In my opinion, the president erred in choosing this spot from which to give this speech.
My father attended and graduated from “the Point” and, although I visited this storied campus only a couple of times as a child, for me any mention of “West Point” invariably conjured up images of “The Long Gray Line” of cadets marching in disciplined unison across the parade grounds (known as “the Plains”). As recently as my most recent visit last month, I was awed to stand among the cadets at this unique institution, so steeped in the history of the magnificent military leaders it has produced – from Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, to George S. Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. But none, perhaps, of these West Point graduates personifies what West Point truly means to America, than Five-Star Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose statute overlooks the Plains.
As I watched President Obama’s televised speech before an auditorium filled with cadets, I could not help thinking of MacArthur’s final visit to West Point in 1962, when at the age of 82 he delivered a 34-minute speech to more than 2,000 cadets. His farewell address to the cadets has been called one of the most moving public speeches in American history. It was delivered in a great hall at West Point, not from a sterile stage with a bland, blue-curtained background, as was the venue chosen by President Obama’s handlers last week. Unlike our current commander-in-chief who appears to be uncomfortable speaking publicly without the aid of Teleprompters, MacArthur used no notes and employed no mechanical aids other than a microphone so his words could be heard by the assembled multitude. He chose to do what so many of America’s great military leaders have done – speak to their troops from the heart not from a script.
MacArthur’s words spoken to the cadets on May 12, 1962, centered around the three words emblazoned on the seal of the United States Military Academy – “Duty, Honor, Country.” This motto, which also is seared in the minds of all who have ever attended that institution, obviously meant so much to the then-retired general that he chose this place and that theme to deliver his final address, capping a long and admirable military career that included the Medal of Honor.
Yes, many presidents and other political leaders have chosen to deliver speeches at West Point and at our nation’s three other military academies. And there is nothing improper in a president choosing to deliver any speech wherever he wants, including at a military location – after all, the president is the commander in chief. But there is a time and a place for everything, and what may be appropriate at one time and place, is not necessarily so at another.
If President Obama had read and digested MacArthur’s speech, and reflected on what it said about West Point, before committing to deliver what turned out to be a fairly mediocre policy address from its auditorium, perhaps he would have realized that this was not the right venue, or the right time, or the right message.
I refer not so much to the substance of what the president spoke about (already, minds far sharper than mine have expressed confusion over exactly what the president’s “plan” is and what it actually means in reality), as about the tone and purpose of his message. Going to West Point to try and thread a political needle by mixing doses of military policy, domestic politics and economics, and hoping that such a muddled message will gain military gravitas simply because it is delivered at West Point, confirms that this president does not yet truly understand the majesty of either the office he occupies or of the military he commands.