I found watching President Obama’s speech last night a strange experience. He looked so pained and conflicted while delivering it. When he got around to distinguishing Afghanistan from Vietnam, I could see him as LBJ. Obama simply doesn’t have his heart in it.
By my lights Paul Mirengoff has said everything important that needs to be said about the speech. I write only to note a passage that has not received the attention it deserves.
The speech was such a hodgepodge that it would be misleading to refer to any particular passage as striking a discordant note, but one observation especially caught my attention. Toward the end of the speech followoing Obama’s tribute to America’s contribution to “the advancing frontiers of human liberty,” Obama said:
As a country, we’re not as young — and perhaps not as innocent — as we were when Roosevelt was President. Yet we are still heirs to a noble struggle for freedom. And now we must summon all of our might and moral suasion to meet the challenges of a new age.
American innocence is a hoary theme in the classic American literature. The late R.W.B. Lewis devoted an influential work of literary criticism to it in The American Adam.
Innocence usually stands in contrast to experience or guilt. In Lewis’s reckoning, innocence recalled Adam in the garden and a break with the past. The American Adam stood somewhere outside of history as a “new man.”
One wonders in what sense Obama invoked an American innocence that has arguably been lost since the Age of Roosevelt, to borrow Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s formulation regarding FDR. Perhaps Obama has in mind what he would view as the lapse of the Bush presidency. His pettiness about the Bush administration elsewhere in the speech could support such an argument, though perhaps he was alluding to Vietnam. The text provides insufficient evidence to arrive at a firm judgment.
In any event, I raise the question without having a ready answer to it. I would nevertheless hazard the guess that Obama’s invocation of any such lost innocence bears roughly the same relationship to reality as Obama’s usual historical observations.