Sooner or later, we’ll turn to more profane matters, but to follow up on a question from Bud:
Does anyone besides me find it offputting when the POTUS says “God Bless America”? Who started this practice? I never noticed it before George W. used it at every opportunity. Now Obama is getting carried away with it.
My first reaction was that every president in my memory had done it. But I thought I’d check, however cursorily. My quick search turned up this piece from TIME magazine. Apparently, no president from FDR through LBJ had ended speeches that way. But then…
On the evening of April 30, 1973, Richard Nixon addressed the nation live from the Oval Office in an attempt to manage the growing Watergate scandal. It was a difficult speech for Nixon: He announced the resignations of three Administration officials, including Attorney General Richard Kleindienst — but Nixon nonetheless tried to sound optimistic. As he approached the end of his speech, Nixon noted that he had “exactly 1,361 days remaining” in his term and wanted them “to be the best days in America’s history.” “Tonight,” he continued, “I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency.” Then came the magic words: “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.”
Not an auspicious beginning, give the extent to which Nixon was given to self-pitying self-interest.
According to this source, neither Gerald Ford nor Jimmy Carter (surprised?) used the phrase to end speeches. But Ronald Reagan did, big-time. And every president since.
Of course, this account is rather nitpicking. Presidents before Nixon DID invoke the Deity’s blessing, just in different words:
Presidents from Roosevelt to Carter did sometimes conclude their addresses by seeking God’s blessing, often using language such as “May God give us wisdom” or “With God’s help.” But they didn’t make a habit of it.
As for whether presidents should do this or not (and Bud thinks not), I think it’s fine either way. As I said in response to Bud earlier, I generally like it. No matter how pompous the speaker, those words end the speech on a note of humility. It’s a nod to that which is greater than the speaker and all the power he commands.
It is an invocation. OK, technically, since it’s at the end, it’s a benediction. But basically, it’s a plea sent aloft — Please bless this nation which I have been elected to serve. It’s impossible to imagine anything more benign, or more appropriate, for an elected leader to say.
AT THE SAME TIME…
I respect that some presidents have generally avoided such an invocation. Declining to do so is another way of demonstrating humility, and proper respect toward a deity. A serious, thoughtful politician might well consider it crass to invoke God in connection with a political speech, as the rest of the speech is necessarily tied to petty temporal concerns and usually designed to advance the position of the speaker.
I excuse the practice to the extent that it is a sort of departure from the rest of the speech. I tend to hear it as the speaker saying, “Whether you go along with what I said just now or not, whether I continue to serve you or not, whether I and my party prevail or be consigned to the dustbin of history, I ask that God bless our country.”
It at least gives me one thing I can always agree with.