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President Obama and the 9/11 Memorial: A Missed Opportunity

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On Thursday President Obama spoke at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum. The event was nationally televised and attracted a large crowd of survivors, family members of those lost in the terrorist attack, and political dignitaries that included former President Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The speech the president gave was vintage Obama–well delivered remarks focused on the emotional story of Welles Crowther, a young man who repeatedly risked his life to save others in the South Tower of the World Trade Center until the building collapsed and killed him. President Obama delivered the speech with appropriate emotion in his voice and has Welles Crowther’s mother, Allison, and one of the women Welles saved, Ling Young, at his speech to add to the visceral impact.

Although the speech was effective at paying tribute to the heroes from 9/11 and in dedicating the museum as a national landmark, the remarks did little for Americans in 2014 who fear threats from terrorists and foreign powers like Russia, doubt the role of the United States to use its power to make the world a safer place, and are suffering from years of gridlocked politics that has lead to a decline in trust in government.

In ancient Athenian culture the practice of leaders delivering a public funeral oration to thousands of citizens after significant battles was critical to keeping the state together and strong. The most famous of these addresses was delivered by Pericles in 431 BC and recorded by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is the most well known American speech of this type and as historian Garry Wills claims, served to begin the process of  remaking the United States after it was torn apart by the Civil War.  Likewise historian James McPherson claims the speech was the “most eloquent expression of the new birth of freedom.” Both historians claim that Lincoln’s address was modeled on Pericles’ funeral oration.

This address consists of five basic parts: 1. the proemium or praise of its predecessors, 2.) a section praising of the dead, 3.) a celebration of the nation, 4.) an exhortation to the living, and 5. an epilogue or closing.  President Obama’s speech at the 9/11 museum lacked two elements of a traditional funeral oration–an opening that puts the event in historical context and a strong exhortation to Americans in 2014. Because the president’s speech lacked these key elements, Obama failed to advance a strong policy argument about American security policy, thus not reuniting Americans over the event that thirteen years previously had brought Americans together.

The president began by telling the story of Welles Crowther’s heroism in saving lives, until losing his own. The president closes his opening story by describing Crowther’s actions as selfless: “They didn’t know his name. They didn’t know where he came from. But they knew their lives had been saved by the man in the red bandana.”  At the end of the opening the president states the ultimate purpose of the museum and his speech: “But above all, to reaffirm the true spirit of 9/11 — love, compassion, sacrifice — and to enshrine it forever in the heart of our nation.”  His opening was solely focused in the events on and since 9/11 and on the heroic acts of individuals. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, opens by going back to the revolution–“Four score and seven years ago our forefathers. . .”–and to the founding principles of the country–liberty and equality.

The strongest part of Obama’s speech was how he praised the dead. The president spoke of past and current heroes as he spoke of “coworkers who led others to safety” and “passengers who stormed the cockpit,” as well as service members “who have served with honor in more than a decade of war.” The president continued his praise of Welles Crowther in the middle section of the speech as he spoke of Crowther working in finance, but being a volunteer firefighter and how he had always worn a red bandana. He closed this section of the speech by saying: “And after the planes hit, he put on that bandana and spent his final moments saving others.”

The president ends his speech by speaking about the sacrifice of young people like Crowther and how his spirit lives on in family members: “Those we lost live on in us. In the families who love them still. In the friends who remember them always. And in a nation that will honor them, now and forever.” At the end of his remarks, the president introduced Allison Crowther and Ling Young.

Obama really fails to take advantage of an important historical moment and address the nation, as Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln spoke about the dead not dying in vain and how the nation will have a new birth in freedom. The president had an opportunity to give meaning to those who died in the World Trade Center attacks and rhetorically unite the American people toward a common goal, whether that is continuing the fight against terrorism or restoring American honor and pride around the world.

By failing to understand the rhetorical potential in the 9/11 museum dedication in terms of reuniting Americans, President Obama missed an important opportunity that he may not have again before his presidency ends. Ceremonial occasions, like the museum dedication, with a huge national audience happen very infrequently. Some presidents like Lincoln and Reagan (at Normandy) seize the opportunity to turn a ceremonial occasion into a very significant event. Other presidents see it as an opportunity to “say a few words.”

 


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