[lit-ideas] Ted Sorensen

  • From: "Andreas Ramos" <andreas@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 29 May 2004 11:21:45 -0700

From:  http://www.newschool.edu/commencement/2004/sorensent.html

Ted Sorensen's Remarks
New School University Commencement
May 21, 2004


As a Nebraska émigré, I am proud to be made an Honorary Doctor of Laws
by another Nebraska émigré, President Kerrey...at an institution
founded by still another, Alvin Johnson.

Considering the unhealthy state of our laws today, they probably could
use another doctor.

My reciprocal obligation is to make a speech.

This is not a speech. Two weeks ago I set aside the speech I prepared.
This is a cry from the heart, a lamentation for the loss of this
country's goodness and therefore its greatness.

Future historians studying the decline and fall of America will mark
this as the time the tide began to turn ­ toward a mean-spirited
mediocrity in place of a noble beacon.

For me the final blow was American guards laughing over the naked,
helpless bodies of abused prisoners in Iraq. "There is a time to
laugh," the Bible tells us, "and a time to weep." Today I weep for the
country I love, the country I proudly served, the country to which my
four grandparents sailed over a century ago with hopes for a new land
of peace and freedom. I cannot remain silent when that country is in
the deepest trouble of my lifetime.

I am not talking only about the prison abuse scandal­that stench will
someday subside. Nor am I referring only to the Iraq war-that too will
pass-nor to any one political leader or party. This is no time for
politics as usual, in which no one responsible admits responsibility,
no one genuinely apologizes, no one resigns and everyone else is

The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few
months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer
lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon

The stain on our credibility, our reputation for decency and integrity,
will not quickly wash away.

Last week, a family friend of an accused American guard in Iraq recited
the atrocities inflicted by our enemies on Americans, and asked: "Must
we be held to a different standard?" My answer is YES. Not only because
others expect it. WE must hold ourselves to a different standard. Not
only because God demands it, but because it serves our security.

Our greatest strength has long been not merely our military might but
our moral authority. Our surest protection against assault from abroad
has been not all our guards, gates and guns or even our two oceans, but
our essential goodness as a people. Our richest asset has been not our
material wealth but our values.

We were world leaders once ­ helping found the United Nations, the
Marshall Plan, NATO, and programs like Food for Peace, international
human rights and international environmental standards. The world
admired not only the bravery of our Marine Corps but also the idealism
of our Peace Corps.

Our word was as good as our gold. At the start of the Cuban Missile
Crisis, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, President Kennedy's
special envoy to brief French President de Gaulle, offered to document
our case by having the actual pictures of Soviet nuclear missiles in
Cuba brought in. "No," shrugged the usually difficult de Gaulle: "The
word of the President of the United States is good enough for me."

Eight months later, President Kennedy could say at American University:
"The world knows that America will never start a war. This generation
of Americans has had enough of war and hate...we want to build a world
of peace where the weak are secure and the strong are just."

Our founding fathers believed this country could be a beacon of light
to the world, a model of democratic and humanitarian progress. We were.
We prevailed in the Cold War because we inspired millions struggling
for freedom in far corners of the Soviet empire. I have been in
countries where children and avenues were named for Lincoln, Jefferson,
Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. We were respected, not reviled,
because we respected man's aspirations for peace and justice. This was
the country to which foreign leaders sent not only their goods to be
sold but their sons and daughters to be educated. In the 1930's, when
Jewish and other scholars were driven out of Europe, their preferred
destination-even for those on the far left-was not the Communist
citadel in Moscow but the New School here in New York.

What has happened to our country? We have been in wars before, without
resorting to sexual humiliation as torture, without blocking the Red
Cross, without insulting and deceiving our allies and the U.N., without
betraying our traditional values, without imitating our adversaries,
without blackening our name around the world.

Last year when asked on short notice to speak to a European audience,
and inquiring what topic I should address, the Chairman said: "Tell us
about the good America, the America when Kennedy was in the White
House." "It is still a good America," I replied. "The American people
still believe in peace, human rights and justice; they are still a
generous, fair-minded, open-minded people.

Today some political figures argue that merely to report, much less to
protest, the crimes against humanity committed by a few of our own
inadequately trained forces in the fog of war, is to aid the enemy or
excuse its atrocities. But Americans know that such self-censorship
does not enhance our security. Attempts to justify or defend our
illegal acts as nothing more than pranks or no worse than the crimes of
our enemies, only further muddies our moral image. 30 years ago,
America's war in Vietnam became a hopeless military quagmire; today our
war in Iraq has become a senseless moral swamp.

No military victory can endure unless the victor occupies the high
moral ground. Surely America, the land of the free, could not lose the
high moral ground invading Iraq, a country ruled by terror, torture and
tyranny - but we did.

Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein ­ politically, economically,
diplomatically, much as we succeeded in isolating Khadafy, Marcos,
Mobutu and a host of other dictators over the years, we have isolated
ourselves. We are increasingly alone in a dangerous world in which
millions who once respected us now hate us.

Not only Muslims. Every international survey shows our global standing
at an all-time low. Even our transatlantic alliance has not yet
recovered from its worst crisis in history. Our friends in Western
Europe were willing to accept Uncle Sam as class president, but not as
class bully, once he forgot JFK's advice that "Civility is not a sign
of weakness."

All this is rationalized as part of the war on terror. But abusing
prisoners in Iraq, denying detainees their legal rights in Guantanamo,
even American citizens, misleading the world at large about Saddam's
ready stockpiles of mass destruction and involvement with al Qaeda at
9/11, did not advance by one millimeter our efforts to end the threat
of another terrorist attack upon us. On the contrary, our conduct
invites and incites new attacks and new recruits to attack us.

The decline in our reputation adds to the decline in our security. We
keep losing old friends and making new enemies ­ not a formula for
success. We have not yet rounded up Osama bin Laden or most of the al
Qaeda and Taliban leaders or the anthrax mailer. "The world is large,"
wrote John Boyle O'Reilly, in one of President Kennedy's favorite
poems, "when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide, but the world
is small when your enemy is loose on the other side." Today our enemies
are still loose on the other side of the world, and we are still
vulnerable to attack.

True, we have not lost either war we chose or lost too much of our
wealth. But we have lost something worse ­ our good name for truth and
justice. To paraphrase Shakespeare: "He who steals our nation's purse,
steals trash. T'was ours, tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But
he that filches our good name... makes us poor indeed."

No American wants us to lose a war. Among our enemies are those who, if
they could, would fundamentally change our way of life, restricting our
freedom of religion by exalting one faith over others, ignoring
international law and the opinions of mankind; and trampling on the
rights of those who are different, deprived or disliked. To the extent
that our nation voluntarily trods those same paths in the name of
security, the terrorists win and we are the losers.

We are no longer the world's leaders on matters of international law
and peace. After we stopped listening to others, they stopped listening
to us. A nation without credibility and moral authority cannot lead,
because no one will follow.

Paradoxically, the charges against us in the court of world opinion are
contradictory. We are deemed by many to be dangerously aggressive, a
threat to world peace. You may regard that as ridiculously unwarranted,
no matter how often international surveys show that attitude to be
spreading. But remember the old axiom: "No matter how good you feel, if
four friends tell you you're drunk, you better lie down."

Yet we are also charged not so much with intervention as indifference ­
indifference toward the suffering of millions of our fellow inhabitants
of this planet who do not enjoy the freedom, the opportunity, the
health and wealth and security that we enjoy; indifference to the
countless deaths of children and other civilians in unnecessary wars,
countless because we usually do not bother to count them; indifference
to the centuries of humiliation endured previously in silence by the
Arab and Islamic worlds.

The good news, to relieve all this gloom, is that a democracy is
inherently self-correcting. Here, the people are sovereign. Inept
political leaders can be replaced. Foolish policies can be changed.
Disastrous mistakes can be reversed.

When, in 1941, the Japanese Air Force was able to inflict widespread
death and destruction on our naval and air forces in Hawaii because
they were not on alert, those military officials most responsible for
ignoring advance intelligence were summarily dismissed.

When, in the late 1940's, we faced a global Cold War against another
system of ideological fanatics certain that their authoritarian values
would eventually rule the world, we prevailed in time. We prevailed
because we exercised patience as well as vigilance, self-restraint as
well as self-defense, and reached out to moderates and modernists, to
democrats and dissidents, within that closed system. We can do that
again. We can reach out to moderates and modernists in Islam, proud of
its long traditions of dialogue, learning, charity and peace.

Some among us scoff that the war on Jihadist terror is a war between
civilization and chaos. But they forget that there were Islamic
universities and observatories long before we had railroads.

So do not despair. In this country, the people are sovereign. If we can
but tear the blindfold of self-deception from our eyes and loosen the
gag of self-denial from our voices, we can restore our country to
greatness. In particular, you-the Class of 2004-have the wisdom and
energy to do it. Start soon.

In the words of the ancient Hebrews:
"The day is short, and the work is great, and the laborers are
sluggish, but the reward is much, and the Master is urgent."

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