Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Words of Few Syllables

Don't blink or you might miss something ...

It's amazing how often while we are witnessing history live, as it happens, the things we notice are small details that never go down in the history books.

For example, back when the redoubtable Oliver North was testifying before Congress on the Iran/Contra deal, I found myself spending way too much time gaping in front of the TV as ever more bizarre facts emerged. But am I the only one who heard him say this ...? Asked if he had really authorized the use of a US Navy ship to transport some of the weapons in question, the good Colonel replied, "Senator, you have to understand that at that moment there was not a ship in the entire CIA inventory that was available to do the job." And am I the only one who blinked and said, "The CIA has its own NAVY??"

In a kind of reverse phenomenon, we are told that we have only one blurry photo of President Lincoln giving the Gettysburg address because the photographer was still setting up. Apparently he thought he had plenty of time because politicians were such windbags, and he couldn't believe that Lincoln was sitting down after uttering just 256 words. In this case the photographer failed to catch the moment, but years later the words ended up carved into marble in the Lincoln Memorial and engraved into the memories of generations of school children. I wonder how many others who were present failed to hear him or to take note of the import of what he had said.

Recently I watched one of President Obama's press conferences in this new age where everything is recorded and replayed and then archived to be used as ammunition in the next election campaign. My ears perked up when he said, "I was reading an interesting article the other night ..."

My first reaction was to leap with joy and say, "Thank God -- we have a President who can read!" Sorry, President Bush, but we all know that was never your strong suit. Nor, I suspect, was it a favorite activity of the first President Bush. Speaking at the Miami Book Fair some years ago, David McCullough related how both G.H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had mentioned McCullough's biography of Harry Truman in their campaign appearances. But while Clinton (who had read it while it was still in galleys) referred to it as "that magnificent biography," Bush called it "that big thick book," as if frightened it might fall on him.

But even better than the fact that Obama can and does read is the content of what he was reading the other night that he felt was important enough to bring up in his press conference. It was an account of how Winston Churchill, in the middle of the blitz during World War II, refused to authorize torture to extract information from several hundred German detainees. Obama was taking a lesson from history, learning from one of the best in the past, using it to inform his current policies and to instruct us how to best uphold our ideals.

If Churchill, with London being bombed nightly, could refrain from taking that walk "on the dark side," as Dick Cheney rightly called it, then surely we can do the same. A small thing? Perhaps. But only time will tell how big it could be.

Meanwhile, let's keep watching for more of those small moments as they emerge from the cloud of possibility and etch themselves onto the photographic memories of the future.

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