This Tuesday, Barack Obama will travel to the United States Military Academy at West Point to deliver the most important address of his young presidency. He has obviously chosen the site for the speech with great care and in the hope that the backdrop – a storied scene on the Hudson – will engender an image of him as a strong and effective commander in chief.
It is probably a smart move, but one not without a measure of risk.
The President of the United States will be treated with respect and be received enthusiastically – all very appropriate and quintessentially American. But when the fanfare fades and the applause lines become fewer, he will have the tough job of articulating a compelling vision for the future of a war that has lost its name, if not its way.
Though Mr. Obama’s White House predecessor spoke at West Point twice – once in each term – not all presidents make this trip. Eisenhower, one of the two graduates of the academy who went on to become Commander in Chief (the other being fellow Republican, Ulysses S. Grant), never made a major speech there during his two terms as president. And his predecessor, the man from Missouri, avoided the place like the plague. President Truman saw West Point as a breeding ground for “stuffed shirts” – and at any rate, his firing of the academy’s former commandant – Douglas MacArthur – probably kept the presidential welcome mat in storage in the basement of the Thayer Hotel.
As Mr. Obama’s team prepares for this important speech, I wonder if the wordsmiths are taking time to consult the history of what has been said there by other presidents and prominent Americans?
Franklin Roosevelt gave the commencement address in 1939 to graduates who would soon be in harm’s way in Europe and the Pacific. He told that class, “During recent months international political considerations have required still greater emphasis upon the vitalization of our defense, for we have had dramatic illustrations of the fate of undefended nations. I hardly need to be more specific than that. Recent conflicts in Europe, the Far East and Africa bear witness to the fact that the individual soldier remains still the controlling factor.”