Ted Sorensen, one of Lincoln's better products, was back in town recently to deliver the
commencement address at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He talked to the graduates
about the messy business going on in Washington and what he sees as a remedy for it.
And he never mentioned the Bush administration. That's how nice a guy he is.
That's a little like talking about organized crime without mentioning the Mafia. But I have a copy
of the speech and there's no mention of President Bush or anyone in his administration.
You remember Ted Sorensen, don't you?
Grew up right here in Lincoln, graduated from the University of Nebraska law school, first in the
1951 graduating class. Went to Washington, D.C., to serve as John F. Kennedy's speechwriter
and special counsel. The guy JFK called his "intellectual bloodbank," the guy who helped create
the Peace Corps, who helped write the 1962 letter to Nikita Khrushchev that resulted in the
peaceful withdrawal of Russian nuclear missiles from Cuba.
How, you ask, could he talk about such stuff without pointing out differences between that
administration and the current one? I'll tell you.
He started with some pleasantries, telling the outdoor audience that his "first connection with
this university came over 60 years ago when I dated a brilliant and beautiful Wesleyan coed."
That piqued our interest but he didn't tell us any more about her.
Said he, still remembered hearing the Wesleyan chorus singing the famous Oscar Hammerstein
lyrics: "You, who have dreams, if you act, they will come true! To
turn your dreams into fact is up to you. If you have the soul and the
spirit, never fear it, you'll see it through; hearts can inspire other hearts With their fire."
It's from "Stouthearted Men," and Sorensen said "today our country needs more stouthearted men
and women you, the graduating class."
Standard commencement speech so far. But hang on. It's about to change.
As an example of the kind of stout hearts he means, he held up JFK, who said many memorable
things, one of which was this: If we ever abandon basic American traditions to defeat our
global enemy, what will it profit us to win the whole world if we lose our soul?
Now you're remembering.
"I am certain," Sorensen said, "our country will continue to be the home of the brave can
we be equally certain that we will remain the land of the free, wise enough to keep our
minds open and our values and freedom intact, brave enough to face the truth
strong enough to remember that we have the advantage in being a nation of laws, not of men?"
In America, he said, the law is
king and our Constitution "is now
being tested as it has not been tested since the Civil War. Have we the will to live by the
law, both global
and domestic, to enforce those laws against all violators, high and low, including the laws
against torture, against indefinite detention, against eavesdropping without warrants?"
The Truth, Mainly
Torture? Indefinite detention? Eavesdropping without warrants? Was this what a commencement
speech was supposed to be about?
And Sorensen went on:
"When those whom we elect to lead us are lawless, those whom we elect to hold them
accountable must not be spineless. Who is watching the watchman? Where is the innocent
voice to cry out that the emperor has no clothes?"
And, he said, "We cannot continue to close our minds to options other than the path
of pre-emptive unilateral war. We cannot continue to turn our backs on international
coalition, international courts and international law."
The audience was stirring a bit, by now, partly from the heat of the sun, and
probably more from the heat of what the speech reminds us of. And Sorensen wasn't finished.
"From this audience," he said, "I predict America will find once again those stouthearted
men and women, profiles in courage, political leaders who observe the rule
of law, both national and international. That is a difficult test for our country
and for your generation. But if you have the soul and the spirit, never fear it, you'll
see it through."
No mention of the Bush administration, not the president, the vice president, the defense
secretary or the others.
He didn't need to. We all knew who he was talking about.
A few of us gave him a standing ovation, but the majority sat silently, apparently having
forgotten the New Frontier, apparently having turned their backs on Camelot.
Or maybe it was just all that sunlight beating down on us, too
hot for comfort, and no way to fuzz up the focus of his burning clarity.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail