Wednesday, February 2, 2011

D Day and the history of a great speech

I think it's not too unfair to say that the late 60s and 70s can be summed up politically and nationalistically in one word: malaise. The Vietnam War was hardly the stuff of patriotic pride, and the presidents in the decade that followed weren't what many would characterize as inspirational. But even though I was just a kid back then, I recall President Ronald Reagan as restoring a sense of pride in America, and Douglas Brinkley argues that Reagan was the perfect man to do that in his book The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion. He did it by hearkening back to an earlier era, an era when pride in America's accomplishments was not only warranted but hard-earned: World War II, and in particular D Day.

The Boys of Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day, and the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger BattalionThe reason Reagan was so perfect Brinkley says is that he was part of the "greatest generation" and identified with those soldiers even though he hadn't served in a combat position himself (due to poor eyesight). His admiration of Franklin Roosevelt's optimism extended to modeling his own speaking style on FDR's rhetoric, but with the addition of Eisenhower's pragmatism and his own conservative thinking. And one of the defining moments of his presidency was when he delivered his "Boys of Pointe du Hoc" and Omaha Beach speeches on the shores of Normandy at the 40th commemoration of D Day. His recounting of their ordeal of climbing the cliffs in the face of withering enemy fire not only earned the respect of many of his critics, it awakened a resurgent interest in WWII and its heroes that continues today.

Brinkley explains the history of Pointe du Hoc and the rangers who took out the enemy guns atop the 100 foot cliffs, but it's not really a WWII book. He combines that history with the story behind Reagan's historic speech extolling the heroism of D Day - a speech considered one of the greatest in recent history, along with his later speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate where he famously challenged: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Brinkley discusses speechwriter Peggy Noonan's crafting of the address, and how it tapped into Reagan's personality and objectives so perfectly. And while it's a very inspiring story, it's the political aspect that was the biggest detraction in my opinion. Brinkley is blunt in his assessment that the speech was a political one, given in an election year and calculated for specific effect - even while it was honest and personal for Reagan. And his discussion of the speechwriting process, while maybe status quo in the jaded political circles of Washington, is kind of like pulling back the curtain to reveal the wizard and his tricks. I'm not saying such background shouldn't be acknowledged - just that it takes the shine off an otherwise inspiring event. Still, it's a good book that helps explain why WWII is such a popular topic and how President Reagan reminded us of our proud legacy (and thanks to Ken K. at church for lending it to me).

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