My Reaction to the Farewell Speeches (1/2) The Standouts

These are my thoughts on the Farewell Addresses, ordered from what I consider to be the best speech, down to my picks for the worst.

It’s important to note upfront that JFK, LBJ and Ford did not give Farewell addresses. Kennedy for obvious reasons. The latter two decided to deliver theirs’ as part of the State of the Union address from their final year in office, so if I ever comment on these, it will be as part of a State of the Union series. (Maybe that’s faulty logic, but if they themselves didn’t think it was important enough to warrant its own standalone speech…)

Something that was really surprising to me in the course of researching this topic is that the idea of issuing a farewell address seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. Aside from George Washington and Andrew Jackson,* Harry Truman was the first to deliver one in the modern era, and the tradition only began with him. Since the presidents have always tried to follow Washington’s example in most areas, I’m not sure why this was not a custom in the 1800’s. I know that the State of the Unions were not delivered in person since Jefferson, because he thought that it was too monarchical, (Woodrow Wilson later reinstated that tradition) but for what reason would a President not want to say goodbye and maybe offer a warning of some problem they see coming? In any case, the most memorable part of Washington’s speech was his caution against foreign entanglements and political parties. Apparently Jackson warned against increasing sectionalism, as well as big banks and corporations. America ignored both of these warnings, largely to our detriment as far as I’m concerned.

*I will not be reviewing Washington and Jackson’s addresses in full for two main reasons. One, in my speech analyses I always try to go by a video or audio recording of the speaker’s delivery (always the former where available) because oration, body language and cadence are as much a factor of my reaction to a speech as its rhetoric, prescience and policy. And two, I think it’s unfair to compare the rhetoric of an 1800s era speaker to those of the modern day. The vocabulary, relevant issues and historical context is so different. Men of the founders’ time were so much more eloquent, they were forging an unknown path with these ceremonies and circumstances as opposed to paying homage in the expected way, and the nation’s circumstances were unrecognizable to today’s. I will make reference to the main points of Washington and Jackson’s speeches, however.

#1: Eisenhower

Eisenhower’s is by far the most famous and quoted of the modern era, second only to Washington’s as the most prescient of all time.

It’s pretty sad listening to Eisenhower prattle on about how wonderful his relationship with Congress has been. We Millennials have never known anything of the sort in our lifetimes, but that’s the way it ought to be. Then, like his predecessor Truman, Eisenhower summarizes his foreign policy especially with respect to the Cold War.

Later in the speech, Eisenhower gets into something that was common in convention speeches but missing in the inaugurals and other farewells—a chorus—as he uses the word “balance” in repetition to emphasize the mediation between the forces influencing the American economy and government. This leads into his iconic warning about the armament industry and its astronomical costs. He even had the insight to call out the change to our culture which was underway by this new, ridiculously huge industry. Eisenhower specifically encourages an informed and passionate citizenry to keep this industry in check. I really wish the hardcore pro-military, pro-status quo crowd would listen to this speech. It’s not unpatriotic or against “the troops” to say that our military budget has spiraled out of control; the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces of WWII thought the say thing. (So did George McGovern, a decorated war hero, for what that’s worth too.)

This is a great speech, and one of the most foresighted in American history. I believe this address, and the fact that “too weak,” “liberal pansy,” George McGovern was a decorated war hero ought to be the first things any modern anti-war liberal points to when they’re slandered as “not caring about the troops” because of their desire to scale back the military budget and overseas adventurism. Fuck the war profiteers, it is and always has been they who are anti-American.

#2: Obama

ASIDE: I wrote my reaction to this speech a few weeks earlier than the others, and before I decided to analyze the Farewell Addresses as a whole. Because of that, the writing style and points of emphasis here are different. I largely focused on the Obama policies and his legacy as a whole as opposed to sizing up how this conforms to or differs from the conventions of a Farewell Address. However, this speech is far more similar to a standard campaign stump speech than any that came before it, so this wasn’t something I could help much anyway.

There’s not a whole lot to say except that this is fantastic, maybe even the best speech Obama’s ever given, which is saying a lot. I have quite a few problems with things he did and did not do as President, but I will miss him. He was a neoliberal and a green boy who became President too soon, but he was also a classy guy and did some decent things at least. Here are some things that stood out to me about the speech:

I liked the specific mention of transgender rights, obviously. My misgivings with Obama (and Hillary) on gay rights are that they didn’t come out in favor until it was safe, in 2013, and then were retroactively framed as heroes for the cause. However, in this case he actually did take a stand for us when the battle was still ongoing and we have yet to achieve mainstream acceptance. His administration stood up against North Carolina and as I understand the pro-trans measures from Bernie’s platform were adopted into the DNC platform for the election. I still wish Obama and the Democrats would do more to bring attention to the lackluster protections against being evicted or fired, but at least this kind of mainstream advocacy is a step in the right direction. Obama is, I am 99.9999% sure, the first President to mention LGBT people in a major speech like this. It’s worth noting, however, that he’s not the first Presidential nominee or candidate to support our rights as one of his policies. I still wish more people today appreciated McGovern and Jesse Jackson speaking sense in the 70’s and 80’s.

I love the emphasis on how a citizen is the most powerful and important position in government, something Carter also said in his own Farewell Address. That was a great talking point. And I like how Obama emphasized he will continue to be with us fighting for change as a citizen.

I thought it was very astute to talk about people echo-chambering themselves online, shutting out dissenting views and talking over one another. This is by far the biggest issue of political discourse today and plays an insurmountable role in the dangerous polarization of America. I also love how Obama didn’t turn this into a big “we need to empower the government to stop fake newz!!!” spiel as Hillary and Trump have done post-election. That was incredibly classy and kept the discourse on a real problem rather than using it to push more authoritarianism or throw around a stupid buzzword.

However, I do think it was hypocritical of Obama to talk about the fight against Authoritarianism. I forget how he phrased it exactly, but it came up and my first thought was “this coming from the guy who increased the surveillance state and kept weed illegal even though he knows it’s harmless.” Similarly, at some point in the speech he mentioned the need for us to call out our own party’s wrongdoings and my first thought was “oh, like you when you pushed Hillary on everyone and never decried the DNC’s corruption?” It’s been my biggest beef with Obama from the start, he says all the right things but the follow through is often extremely disappointing.

While I’m on this subject, it’s pretty two-faced of Obama to say “if anyone recommends a better solution than Obamacare I will absolutely support it!” yet he wasn’t there with Bernie cheering for Single Payer which is better and what most Americans want. There were a few other moments like this, where he talked about empowering workers to collectively bargain again, for example, and it’s like “yeah, that’s why we had labor unions…until Third Way neoliberals and free trade destroyed them all!” These are some of the few but significant black marks against the speech, where Obama comes off as phony and “do as I say, not as I do.” I almost prefer Republicans who are at least honest about their terrible policies to this gaslighting.

I love how he focused on climate change for a good portion of the speech. Obama did not descend into petty disagreements with Trump or the Republicans in this speech because it saved it for something important that ought to unite us all. I think that was smart because typically the decorum is to be the bigger person, focus on the positives and don’t look petty by whining about the opposition. But this topic is far, far bigger than that and deserves to be mentioned. One of the many, many scandalous things about the past election was that climate change was never once mentioned at any of the debates. It will undoubtedly be the great issue of our time, one of the great condemnations of the boomers who passed the buck along to us, and it may even be the end of civilization as we know it.

I like how Obama saved the family stuff for later in the speech; he didn’t lead off with the sappy shout-outs to the wife and kids. This is a frequent pet peeve of mine, when speakers do this. I think it drags the speech right at the beginning when you need to grab people, and there is an undeniable correlation between how good speeches tend to save the family till later while bad speeches lead off with it. Obama’s a pro at this point—he knows what excites an audience and what doesn’t. The shoutouts to the Biden family were touching too. I can’t help but notice the Clintons were totally absent. Maybe I’m seeing things that aren’t there, but I take this as further proof that Obama never really liked Hillary in the first place (if you really look at their history, he has no reason to) and that behind closed doors he’s furious at her for being so incompetent as to lose to Trump. In fact, the more I think about it, I don’t believe Obama has even been seen with, or said a kind word about Hillary since the election. His commentary on the whole thing was civil but marked with clear derision. And I cannot help but think he’s probably frustrated with himself for convincing Biden not to run in the primary.

I kind of wish Obama had called the Republicans out more for their disgusting, unprecedented obstructionism and gridlock, as well as the gerrymandering which was so bad NC isn’t even technically considered a democracy anymore. I think he could have done this without calling them out specifically and in such a way that it came off as a general warning that if our government continues to condone such actions, nothing will get done by either side. Maybe he did not do so because the Democrats plan on this strategy for Trump…but knowing their tendency to roll over and take it, I’m skeptical of that.

Finally, I like how he began to talk about a changing social contract and how the taxes and laws and expectations are going to have to be changed in the near future to better reflect the way we live. I believe he was ramping up to the magic words “Basic Income” but stopped just short of actually saying it for fear of it being hated even more by the right (since they automatically hate anything Obama says or supports.) The fact that he specifically brought up automation near this same point was also a context clue I picked up on. He’s said it will be something we debate within the next 20 years, so he’s obviously aware that it needs to happen, but knows it won’t under this current political climate.

#3: Nixon
(Farewell to White House Staff)

I debated whether to include this along with the official resignation announcement, and ultimately decided it warranted inclusion since it was Nixon’s true final word as President. I also consider this the “better” more powerful speech. I say that in quotations because it’s not technically good—it’s kind of a rambling mess at points. But it’s real. It’s a man who was famous for being distant and secretive coming as close as he would allow himself to barring his soul. Even if you despise Nixon—and there were many reasons to—you can’t watch this and not be touched by it. This is a man who’s disgraced himself and the office he so wanted to hold, finally realizing the full gravity of what he did and what he lost in the process. It’s a very cinematic moment, perhaps more so than any other speech in modern American history. The man even chokes back tears a few times.

This is what I’d love to see more of from our leaders. I understand why during the elections they need to be at least a little fake to appeal to most people. And I understand why in office, the demands of the job as well as the need to look tough to hostile foreign and domestic actors means the President has to be distant to some extent. But when it’s all over, for the farewell address if nothing else, they ought to open up and be human for us. Talk about your parents. Talk about your feelings. Talk about your heroes. All of which Nixon does here, and it’s one of the most compelling things a President has ever done. I think the human/nurturing element of the Presidency ought to be something more accentuated and sought out during elections. There’s a disgusting cultural perception that stoicism, righteousness and anger are the only acceptable emotions from powerful people (or from men in general.) I would like to see more empathy, personal vulnerability and compassion from our leaders and those who follow them.

I love the quote from Teddy Roosevelt (“TR” as Nixon affectionately calls him) for two reasons. First, it’s a quote from a great president that doesn’t get quoted nearly as often as he ought to be, as opposed to the endless Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln soundbites. And second, it’s not a quote about America or freedom or any other stock cliche like that. This is the kind of thing I’ll be talking about in the speech analyses to come. I want to see the more overlooked Presidents and even non-Presidents like Senators or Governors quoted and acknowledged in big speeches like this. And, again, I’d like to see the humanity of our leaders acknowledged rather than shut away. Getting off topic here, but I think one of the biggest problems in modern society is that we are not as open about our emotions as we ought to be—especially so for men. I believe seeing it a little more from our leaders, past and present, might go a long way in helping that.

The most famous line of this speech is when Nixon says “others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” Good life advice, and a genuine sentiment. And really, how often can you say that about any political speech? Seriously. For all the vacuous and unoriginal droning on about the democratic process taking place, or liberty, or justifying war abroad as “spreading freedom” how often do we see a little sincere humanity from those in charge? Anyway, it may not be the most technically proficient speech nor was it given under the most ideal circumstances. But I believe in many ways this address is a golden example of what we need to see more of in public discourse. It’s very different from Eisenhower’s farewell, but I believe it represents the other side of the coin in terms of what a great farewell address ought to be.

#4: Clinton

Clinton begins by thanking his staff and extensively going over the accomplishments of his administration. He talks about using the surplus to pay off the debt, completely unaware of the hurricane called Bush that was on its way in. He calls global poverty a powder keg which could cause problems in the future, and I believe he’s right. I think the spark will be global warming and the deleterious effects it has on food production and where people can live. Poorer countries with the fastest growing populations will be the hardest hit, and as they lack the funds to deal with this problem, they will pour into other nations such as ours. This warning of Bill’s isn’t as famous or as drawn out as Eisenhower’s or Washington’s but I think it’s just as important to heed. Like HW Bush though, Clinton goes out of his way to contradict Washington (and Jefferson, as he states here) and says America must keep its alliances. Finally, he stresses the need to celebrate diversity rather than divide ourselves. Again, another very prescient warning which we would do well to listen to.

Not much to say about this. It’s only 7 minutes long. Short, sweet and to the point.

#5: Nixon
(Resignation Announcement)

I consider his goodbye to the staff to be the true farewell address since it was Nixon’s last words to the country. I consider this to be more like a formal announcement of policy—in this case the policy being his choice to resign rather than drag the country through hell with an ongoing scandal. But a lot of people disagree with me on that perspective and anyway…when else am I going to talk about this?

Nixon emphasizes that he hates “quitting” the presidency but feels it’s necessary since he no longer has any base of support. Like LBJ before him, he’s stepping down because he knew he no longer represented what his party wanted, and there is a lot to be said for taking the only honorable way out of a dishonorable situation. The sentiment Nixon expresses about how those who opposed him did so with America’s best interests at heart was a good line. I also like the line about preventing future wars. Pretty much every President since Carter, especially both Bushes and Obama, would have done well to follow that example. Like most farewell addresses, he goes over the accomplishments of his administration, but unlike the others, and continuing with his surprising humility, he freely admits how much more there is to do. Like his farewell to staff speech, he quotes Teddy Roosevelt. Again, I really like that—it’s great to see modern presidents acknowledged and quoted for once instead of the endless Washington and Jefferson fawning.

It was another great speech from Nixon. He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for it today but Nixon was a fantastic orator, literally among the best in our history. There was no way to come out of this situation looking good, but he came as close as humanly possible.

#6: Carter

Carter begins with a really great line about how the only title greater than “President” is “Citizen,” a line it seems Obama has recently borrowed. Then he launches into the typical cliches about facing the future together, how his administration made America stronger, the strength of our institutions…all the stuff you hear a million times watching these things. He then launches into a diatribe on the nature of the Presidency and role of the dutiful Citizen to criticize and question authority. While it’s very mundane, I suppose part of the duty of delivering a Farewell speech is saying things like this–growing up in a lawful republic we often take for granted how special a peaceful transition of power really is. I also like how the opening line wasn’t just a throwaway soundbite and instead established the premise for this entire segment of the speech.

Something Carter does which I admire is acknowledging that the founders never originally intended for the government they created to oversee so many people across an entire continent. This is something I think more people in politics ought to acknowledge. In my experience in both grade school Social Studies and in College, educators tend to hype the US Constitution and political system as something perfect and resolute. There’s never any discussion of its flaws, anachronisms or how other countries have since come along and refined modern democracy. To bring this topic up at all is often seen as blasphemous or ungrateful, so I would like to see a President, even on his way out, break the ice on this conversation again someday. I wish Carter had focused more on this topic–I actually think the Farewell Address is the perfect place to bring up necessary if controversial issues like this.

I see this Address as kind of building on the Crisis of Confidence speech when Carter begins to talk about a lack of belief in government itself. He connects this to the rise in special interest and “single issue” groups. This becomes his own warning, and as a remedy he suggests finding common ground as well as a strong, Constitutional President. He justifies the latter by saying the President, as the only nationally elected figure, represents ALL the people. I must say, hearing this today under Trump is very upsetting. I wish more people these days understood that principle, that the President is meant to protect everyone not just those who voted for him.

Almost as if he could hear my constructive criticisms of the Malaise Speech, Carter makes a point to say that he would like to put aside the role of President for a moment and address us purely as himself. He brings up three topics: nuclear war, natural resources, and the basic rights of human beings while doing so. Obviously he’s against the first one, and he speaks at length about the horrors of that scenario happening. In terms of natural resources, he launches into an impassioned defense of the environment and the necessity of protecting it to insure our own longevity in the world. It goes without saying we should have listened–as a young person listening to this now, knowing what’s coming in my lifetime, I’m terrified. On the third point, he speaks towards supporting democracy abroad–typical post WWII, US foreign policy sentiments. I like the line “America did not invent human rights […] human rights invented America” but if I wanted to be a pedant I would point to the Native Americans and say “tell them that.”

This is a surprisingly good speech and almost certainly the best I’ve seen from Carter. I’ve found that with him, he lacked the charisma or animated quality which makes campaign speeches great. However, his quieter, gentler presence allows him to be more effective in something like this or the Malaise speech. Carter has a certain humility, a disarming quality that helps him to be perceived as sincere by his listener in a way most politicians cannot. Even though this speech trots through a lot of the usual talking points, it feels more genuine rather than phony because of this unique talent of Carter’s.

4 Comments

  1. More good commentary by Cassandra. Must admit that I didn’t have enough interest in politics to listen to these at the time they were made. Have head the Eisenhower speech before, especially the famous warning about the Military Industrial complex, for that reason I probably would rate it higher than you did, although you are much more an expert on political speeches than I am. Good to see you got so much done this weekend!

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