Americans and many around the globe took pause yesterday to reflect upon the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Over the years, this occasion has been marked in essentially the same manner in Lower Manhattan, with the names of the victims read, the politicians in session, and the video of that horrible morning played over and over on media outlets. The gaping wound in the earth is now a memorial. Similar tributes stand not only in Pennsylvania and in Arlington, but in many communities around the nation, as the old World Trade Center found its way into reliquaries in many town squares. A generation has been born not knowing of those harrowing days. And names are fading into history with the passage of time. Yet the implications of that day–the clash of civilizations–continues to play out in places most Americans will never go as civilians.
I’d like to take a slightly different observance this day, that of the abuse of good and meaningful oratory.
One of the more irritating tributes given on September 11th is the recitation of the Gettysburg Address by politicians. I find this irritating because Lincoln’s words were meant for the moment he delivered them–the dedication of a cemetery filled with citizens of the same country, who murdered each other in the name of civil war. Our modern politicos reach back to Lincoln and attempt to attach his wisdom to this occasion because they are quite possibly unable to come up with anything original to say.
It is hard to imagine our current slate of politicos managing that sort of eloquence on their own. Most presidential oratory comes through the pen of a gifted speechwriter. If you like Reagan, thank Peggy Noonan. Kennedy? Thank Sorenson. Nixon? Thank Pat Buchanan and Ben Stein. Obama? Thank Jon Favreau.
The only known photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg, the speech was so short, the poor cameraman never had a chance.
As civil war author Gary Willis has observed, Lincoln wrote his own words, but borrowed heavily from the ancient funeral oration of Pericles for structure. Here is Pericles’ oration–it is a bit longer than the Gettysburg Address.
The Pericles funeral oration–given amid the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC)–was also an occasion to remember the war dead. The structure follows a basic outline:
1. A Proemeum–an acknowledgement of the custom to give a speech in memorial tribute to the dead.
2. Praise of those who have died.
3. The acknowledgement of the greatness of the country for which they died–in this case–Athens.
4. Exhortation to those living–for those that remain, a call to duty or loyalty or arms.
5. Epilogue–end with a bang.
People expected their presidents back then to have studied the classics (not community organizing, business administration or acting). Lincoln was home-schooled with the King James Bible and Shakespeare for his education. And so, Lincoln didn’t disappoint. In case your elementary school memorization fails you, here is the original sentiment. See if you can detect the outline in the speech:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
A few years ago, annoyed by the poor recitation of Pataki, Giuliani et. al., I gave Pericles a closer read, as well as Lincoln, and came up with this more original sentiment, with Pericles as my guide:
“When I was twenty-one years old—and this nation only two hundred and twenty-five—on a crisp September morning, our innocence was rattled and shaken.
For unto this continent, this nation and the peaceful world did feckless zealots— drunk on wickedness and prejudice—bring terror to the heart of this country and to her people. And to those innocent Americans—who as citizens of this country lived their freedoms and rights as they understood them that day–at work, at leisure, and in duty—their lives were taken from us too soon. They were the victims of hate and malice against those very freedoms for which we all stand.
And so it is fitting to gather—in the heart of lower Manhattan, in the golden harvest fields of Pennsylvania and at the marble footsteps of Washington, DC to remember those who lost their lives that September morning. We gather at their final resting places not in fear and in sorrow, but instead to pledge to them, their families and their fellow citizens that their lives will stand for those freedoms and rights, that in spite of their murders that they live on in the eternal memory of their nation, and that we dedicate ourselves anew to defend this bulwark of liberty now and forever.
Yet we know that these words and remembrances will fade with the passage of time. The victims who make these grounds hallow, the heroes who answered the call to respond, and the citizens who gave of themselves so freely to save innocent people that they never knew, speak more clearly to the future than any of us are able.
It is our task then to take up their call—that we resolve to preserve and protect the America that the victims of September 11, 2001 remember—a nation of peace, of prosperity, of freedom and of hope for the world—that we resolve that their lives had meaning and purpose-–that this indefatigable nation of life, and of liberty, and of the pursuit of happiness shall forever endure.”
I know that my version is derivative. (So was Lincoln’s! That is the point.) How hard is that though? Remind people of the reason for gathering, honor their deeds, ascribe a greater purpose and sense of unity, and testify that people may come and go, but values endure. Some may say that in our modern lives–filled with bullet points and tweets–that we have no use for such florid oratory. In truth, we may need it now more than before, given the predilection for misappropriating solemn words from ancient occasions.
On every September 11, I meditate on those things.
September. Painting by Gerhard Richter. 2005