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Elizabeth Samet

Elizabeth Samet: Obama and the View from West Point

Elizabeth Samet, professor of English at the United States Military Academy, attended the speech President Obama gave at West Point on Tuesday evening. Here is an excerpt from her report for The New Republic:
Cadets are gathered together not infrequently in one of various auditoriums to listen to statesmen, generals, pundits, or performers. But presidents are a special case. “Two presidents in two years!” I overheard one cadet say to another with a kind of wonder as he recollected that then-President Bush had visited only last December.Over the years, the rhetoric directed at the Corps of Cadets has ranged from the lofty to the earthy. At the 1962 commencement, President Kennedy addressed Cold War anxieties: “I know that many of you may feel ... that in ... the nuclear age, when war may last in its final form a day or two or three days before much of the world is burned up, that your service to your country will be only standing and waiting. … Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.” Would the cadets in my poetry class have recognized the allusion to Milton?

President Truman’s remarks at a Mess Hall luncheon ten years earlier had a decidedly different tone: “I try my level best to make people feel that they do not have to be afraid of the President, because he is only interested in the welfare of the whole country. He has nothing else to do but to see that the country runs as it should, and to see that we keep our friends in the world, so we won’t have a third world war, and so you won’t have to go and be cannon fodder. I hope you will remember that.” How could they forget?

Yet oratory, presidential or otherwise, occupies a peculiar place in military culture, where action is king. Cadets are accustomed to being exhorted, and they become adept at responding with an automatic enthusiasm. But they are even better, when given the chance (as I think they were last night), at thinking seriously about responsibility.
Click here for the rest of Samet's piece, "A Lonely Kind of Courage."

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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