We live in an age that pines to witness history—if not make it.
The most entertaining and convenient opportunities for experiencing together the tingle of big news are: "historic" presidential elections and "historic" presidential speeches.
We’re told that history may be made; the odds are usually set at 50–50. In effect, "historic" is now a promotional term.
"Historic" is a high-powered polemical benchmark we use to advance our agenda and derail our opponents. Last week, the word was busy undermining Barack Obama and advancing Hillary Clinton.
We could see for ourselves that Obama’s second speech in Berlin didn’t inspire. He appeared tired, fumbled too many words, and didn’t lift his heat-drenched audience of invited sophisticates. Later, it was duly reported that they were generally disappointed. For failing to inspire—to transcend concerns in Europe about America’s numerous wrong-doings —columnists including the National Post’s Rex Murphy labeled Obama as the "Ordinary President."
Murphy compared Obama’s performances to the speeches of Jack Kennedy in 1963 and Ronald Reagan in 1987—both during the Cold War, when Berlin was surrounded by tanks and a cinder-block wall capped with shard glass and barbed wire. Obama didn’t offer one remarkable line in league with “I’m a Berliner” or “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.” Apparently, those lines were historic; Kennedy and Reagan demonstrated their reach as charismatic presidents.
Berlin, then, was a dream city for US presidential oratory. It’s less so today.
Then, Berliners were literally anxious and eager participants; they came out in the hundreds of thousands to help the Leader of the Free World make a great speech about their freedom—and, by doing so, help all Americans like Berliners that much more.
Berlin’s prosperity and survival as a free city depended on the support of the President of the United States and each president’s confidence that voters back home also supported massive US commitments to West Europe and the democratic city of West Berlin. (Can you imagine influential Berliners then complaining aloud that American presidents talk too easily about freedom, while permitting discrimination against American blacks and ignoring the importance of building a more robust social safety net?)
Today, Berliners don’t worry about their freedom. If you want to excite German nerves today, in fact, you talk about what Germany must commit to maintain Europe’s solidarity and how much more they must sacrifice to restore the economies of the rest of Europe.
If Obama had wanted to give an exciting speech, he could have talked about America’s more complete and more successful economic federation. He could have scorned the complainers in London and elsewhere who think Europe’s unifiers went too far in creating the Euro-zone and a European Parliament. Maybe next time.
Great speeches are influential. However, they are usually divisive. Only in time do we learn whether they made a difference. And that’s when we should feel free to call them "historic."
By that measure, neither Kennedy nor Reagan nor Obama, as yet, made historic speeches in Berlin. Kennedy made no new friends or enemies. Gorbachev didn’t take down the Wall. And Obama hasn’t yet convinced Europe to pay its fair share of the burden of maintaining the peace.
Apparently, it’s also okay today to bill elections in advance as "historic." Politico reports: Hillary Clinton wants a female president "in my lifetime":
“She added that President Barack Obama’s election was historic, and said, ‘I hope that we will see a woman elected because I think it would send exactly the right historic signal to girls, women as well as boys and men. And I will certainly vote for the right woman to be president.’”
Clearly, Hillary Clinton has recovered from her exhausting years as a diplomat. Unsheathed self-promotion, also, can be fun and, in her case, is reassuring. She can thrive in serving a former rival and then enjoy serving herself.
Her thesis on the presidency, however, is shopworn and weak.
Obama’s first term record and its vindication in his re-election made his first election historic, not the 2008 election itself. His victory simply confirmed that a black man could win the presidency. Electing Hillary Clinton would confirm that the polls and conventional wisdom are right: that a woman can be president of the United States. America can join the ranks of such high-regarding and demanding democracies as Great Britain, Germany, Israel, and India.
Another successful role model for young women would be welcome but wouldn’t, in itself, solve or even improve the odds of solving those problems at home and abroad that may make the next presidency historic.
Furthermore, there’s much that is parochial and arbitrary about the proposition that an American women is needed in the White House to inspire American women to succeed in politics. Liberals may not identify with Angela Merkel or Margaret Thatcher. However, in addressing "women problems" in professional politics, they set excellent examples.
Anyway, other than nagging self-interest, why can’t the Clinton clan acknowledge that Obama’s success—in elections and in office—has already made a bonfire of those stereotypes that hold back talented individuals with political ambition? Hasn’t Barack Hussein Obama already sent an inspiring invitation to white as well as black girls and women?