My Reaction to the Farewell Speeches (2/2) The Rest

#7: LBJ

Unlike his two predecessors, LBJ did not deliver a separate farewell address. Rather, he merged his final state of the Union and his farewell address into one speech. I won’t comment on that now because I plan to do the State of the Unions at some later point when I have the time. In its place, this was LBJ’s announcement that he would not seek another term. In many ways, it fills the same purpose.

I think LBJ did an honorable thing by recognizing that his party did not want him, and that his actions had divided the country, and stepping down as a result. You don’t see that kind of selflessness today. In the era of Hillary forcing herself down our throats, using Trump as a gun to our heads, it’s a breath of fresh air. After all, these people are supposed to work for us.

The sad irony is that by stepping down for a new generation, making a show of listening to what the loud and numerous young Democrats wanted, his VP stepped in and stole the nomination from RFK and McCarthy. Either one of which was clearly the favorite of the progressive youth movements and either one of which would have likely won against Nixon and made great presidents. In any case, you can’t really call this a speech at just 5 minutes. But I think it was a noble enough sentiment that I rank it where it is here in the list.

#8: Truman

There’s a lot of emphasis on the democratic process, how hard the President works for the people, that the work goes with him wherever he goes, and what it was like to take over from FDR. I like the idea of Truman giving us a behind the scenes look at his Presidency, but I think he does too much summarizing. Especially when you consider that most people then and now already know all this. I’d have appreciated more of a personal touch, like Truman’s emotions and reasoning process when making big decisions, if he was going to do this kind of thing.

As someone who hates the Cold War and its effects on our government then and now, and who considers the whole thing to have been somewhat overblown, it’s annoying hearing Truman go on about that in this speech. Especially in such over the top terminology. It seems like a piece of this speech is missing since it cuts out for a few seconds and suddenly we’re talking about the atomic bomb. To be fair, when he goes into a retrospective on the ’30s and the failure of free men to stop the encroachment of communism and fascism, Truman does do a good job to explain why he and his successors were so adamant on countering the Soviets all over the world. However, with hindsight I think we swung too far in the other direction in the process—there’s such thing as too much action abroad and going too far right at home. The way we hallowed out our own left wing via McCarthyism, the Red Scare and rolling back labor rights is proof that we sacrificed a lot of that freedom of thought which Truman claims we were fighting for in the first place. He even has the gall to say starting a war is no way to make peace, which considering his foreign policy does seem a bit hypocritical.

#9: Reagan

I hate the guy and everything he represents, but damned if it’s not like he wasn’t reading my mind with how he begins this speech. Coming after Nixon’s remarks, when I was just saying I wanted more personality, warmth and sincerity from politicians, it was great to hear Reagan say as much at the beginning of this address. Of course, he then goes on to try to do so in his typical Reagan way—well delivered but very obviously phony and shallow. His story about the boat is alright, but when he then begins to berate us with that typical “America stands for freedom!!!” virtue-signalling, that’s when he lost me. There’s no comparison between this very deliberate forced sentimentality and Nixon coming apart with emotion just over a decade earlier. Not that I expect Reagan to cry, but talking about something genuinely meaningful to you personally without using it to force the typical political talking points would be nice.

ASIDE: On that note, is it really so hard, or so foreign a concept to maybe talk about your heroes as Nixon did with “TR” at the very least? Not Washington or people you’ve only heard about in school, I mean somebody like George McGovern is to me and Teddy Roosevelt apparently was to Nixon. Someone you grew up watching in real time and were profoundly affected by. It may seem picky on my part but I really wish we saw more of that and less of the endless forced Washington name-dropping in these kinds of speeches. I understand the Convention speeches are glorified pep rallies for the party and therefore you must pay lip service to the popular heroes in living memory. And I understand that the Inaugurals are about celebrating the peaceful transition of power, bringing the nation together after a contentious election, and Washington or Jefferson are the safest bets to pay lip service to. However, if I could work my will I would establish the precedent that Farewell Addresses are when you get to talk about whatever President or Senator you want. Preferably the inspiration for you to enter politics in the first place, someone particularly special to YOU on a personal level, and sharing that connection with us.

I like how Reagan talks about the things he’s proudest of specifically. This is that kind of genuineness I mean. Where I would offer a suggestion is, I’d prefer the president to talk a little more about the “behind the scenes” and “the reasoning for my actions was this” kinda stuff. I just feel like, the farewell address ought to be more about revealing the person behind the policy, but that’s just my preference. Reagan does kinda do that when discussing the economic summit and how he felt a little intimidated by it. But when bragging about his “economic miracle” he’s completely full of it–it was nothing but short term gains prioritized over long term sustainability. Reagan’s ideas laid the groundwork that killed unions, ultimately gutted the middle class and sold out Millennials. This is a common theme of Reagan’s oration—it sounds nice, and is admittedly well-delivered, but just a little bit of research and you see it’s all lies or half-truths.

I like how Reagan discusses why he went into politics and why he holds the political beliefs he does. Again, I disagree with everything he’s saying, and I don’t see how anyone could claim the 80’s were freer for the people than the 60’s. But that’s just me. Still, this is exactly the kind of openness/”man behind the desk” type of rhetoric that I appreciate in a good farewell address, so I give him props for that regardless.

I think it reveals a lot about Reagan’s personal character when he says he has regrets…and then blames those regrets on other people. Namely the deficit, which he blames on Congress. That’s not a regret, at least as I understand the term; that’s like answering a job interview question about your weaknesses by pulling the “my weaknesses are actually strengths” card. Blaming other people for your failures is just not something I’d expect of a leader. As Truman said, the buck stops with you. And hiding a thinly veiled partisan attack in what ought to be a humble moment in your speech strikes me as particularly contemptible.

ASIDE: That’s just one of many differences between the Liberal Era (1932-1972) politicians and the Dynastic Era (1980-Present). It’s not a Republican vs Democrat thing, because one only needs to look to Hillary and all her excuses for losing over the past few years to see it cuts both ways in that regard. It’s definitely a generational thing. The two or three generations that led the country from the 30s through the 60s were far more principled, humble and respectable than the politicians of the ’80s and beyond. I think Reagan’s influence, the Me generation and well-known Boomer selfishness has a lot to do with this unfortunate phenomenon.

If Reagan had the insight that Eisenhower did, he would have warned against the real problem facing America as he left office, that cult of greed he helped foster. Eisenhower himself did more than anyone to create the military industrial complex he himself warned about. There’s no shame in saying “hey, I did what I thought I had to do, but be careful and don’t take this too far” as Eisenhower had 30 years earlier. Instead, Reagan gives some absolute bullshit, wishy washy “warning” about how people aren’t patriotic enough. You really can’t make this stuff up. He even tells children to shame their parents for not being patriotic enough—something that’s actually a hallmark of the totalitarian regimes Reagan insists we stand against. (In 1984 children frequently turn parents into the thought police.) The irony is lost on Mr. Reagan.

This speech is well delivered and admittedly hits on a few Farewell Address staples I appreciate. But more often than not, they’re used in a phony, transparently manipulative manner. It’s like a perversion of the most enjoyable aspects of Eisenhower and Nixon’s speeches. That’s why this is so far down on the list.

#10 Bush I

I’m not a big fan of the sports jokes, but I guess that’s how a lot of Americans express themselves, and this is what passes for “opening up” in their eyes. I’ll just say that it doesn’t appeal to me personally. But luckily Bush gets down to it quickly enough. In hindsight, the use of the words “Weapons of Mass Destruction” and “New World Order” is pretty foreboding and unfortunate considering what his son would do, and the agenda of his neocon advisers. There’s the typical double-speak talk about stopping war and spreading peace after an administration of warmongering abroad (continued and exacerbated by his son.)

I actually really admire the chutzpah of this guy to speak against Washington when he says Washington was wrong to advocate isolationism. I disagree (at least to an extent) but that’s something you don’t see often, where an American public figure admits our founders weren’t perfect and their ideas were sometimes wrong or anachronistic in today’s world. But then Bush contradicts himself later by saying America should not be the world’s police…so which is it? He tries to have it both ways, it seems, by calling for global leadership. Bush cites his invasion of Iraq as a positive example of what America ought to do, but I think invading a sovereign country is a lot closer to what most would consider “policing” not “leading.” This speech is giving somewhat mixed signals. I will say though, I admire the example he gives of Yugoslavia being a case where use of force might do more harm than good. (I wish Obama would have understood this principle; his own unnecessary and ultimately detrimental involvement in Syria and Libya would have served as excellent examples to Bush’s point here.)

Listening to this speech, I can now fully understand why Bush lost and nobody really thinks of him as a good leader. Literally all he talks about is military actions and when force is necessary and when it’s not. This speech would be far more appropriate given to the heads of the military, or as a course lecture to West Point students (and actually, that’s exactly who are in attendance here) than as a farewell address to the entire nation. He doesn’t talk about domestic issues at all. There’s zero of that personality or openness I’ve been clamoring for. There’s no warning or insight into our future. Nothing. Literally just talking about all the countries he’s invaded, and those he chose not to. It’s also very flawed rhetorically; you could make a drinking game for every time he says “use of force” in this speech. It’s a long speech too, by Farewell address standards.

And he even has the gall to sneak in another shout-out to the drug war in here too!!!

There can be no doubt about it at this point. If we ignore policies and judge purely in terms of debating, oration and rhetoric, Papa Bush is the worst President we’ve ever had. Every single series he comes in at the bottom, with a wide gulf between him and the one immediately above on the list.

#11 Bush II

Has any other President left the White House so hated? Maybe Nixon, but I doubt Bush can make up for it with such an emotional sendoff.

He predictably begins with the most important event of his Presidency—9/11. Unlike Clinton who was able to boast of sending Americans to college in record numbers and a huge surplus, Bush boasts of all the new agencies he’s created and the countries he’s invaded. We see a return to the obnoxious Cold War era rhetoric with the talk of “the others,” and the division of the world, “one side believes in XYZ freedom, the other side believes in ABC bad things.” We had a brief but thankful break from this divisive fear-mongering rhetoric with Clinton, and now it’s back. Bush’s excuse about best intentions rings false when you consider that he did not take the intelligence briefing on Al Qaeda seriously when he entered the office. He’s also completely out of touch calling America safer, and claiming our greatest threat is another terrorist attack. We destroyed ourselves and our principles with the surveillance state created under Bush (ans continued under Obama–this atrocity crosses party lines.) Our biggest threats are the out of control NSA programs and military adventurism ceding control from the people and exhausting our resources.

I think it’s funny Bush specifically speaks against isolationism and protectionism considering the next Republican president built his whole political identity on both of those things. He’s also either very ignorant and/or dangerous calling the world a place of good and evil. In the real world, everything is a shade of gray, and this false binary thinking has done humanity a lot of ill throughout our history. That’s an inexcusably reductionist, overly simplistic way to view things and it’s no wonder then why he got us into so much trouble then with that attitude. You don’t have to be a Liberal/Idealist (in terms of International Relations Theory) to know how wrong Bush is here. Even the less cheery Realpolitik/Realist school of thought claims nations are self-interested, not “good/evil.”

Terrible speech, terrible administration, terrible presidency.

Summary

These were far more interesting to watch than the inaugurals, to my immense surprise. [Those are next!] The personality and differences that made the convention speeches mostly fun to watch is back, as opposed to the strictly uniform, cliche-ridden inauguration addresses. After all this time, Eisenhower remains the best and most iconic. His is the only modern Farewell address which is frequently quoted and widely considered a great speech. While I can definitely see why it deserves preeminence among the crowd, that doesn’t mean the others aren’t good or important either. Nixon’s speeches were surprisingly moving and effective in particular. And while it’s overlooked, Bill Clinton touched on some good points in his address. I think the only two I actively disliked were the two Bushes, whose speeches are yet again the worst of the lot. Bush Senior missed the point entirely and more or less delivered a military lecture rather than actually say goodbye to the nation and maybe y’know, appear human for even one second. Bush Junior’s was just a capstone to an awful 8 years.

I liked Truman, Nixon and Carter’s approach to showing their inner humanity in their speeches. Going over what they did, why they did it, talking about themselves, their parents, what’s important to them as people…that was genuinely touching and we ought to see more of it in government. Along with the warnings, I believe this attribute most helps a farewell speech be effective and memorable. It’s your final opportunity to address the American people as a whole, and because of that I think the best thing to do is say what’s really on your mind for once. As President, you have to be a bit stoic and constrained so as to not alienate anyone, but in the farewell address you get to be yourself. I think removing the mask, so to speak, and showing everyone the true nature of the man behind the wheel is a very important thing in its own way.

Every single warning given by the farewell speeches (except Reagan’s, which was a joke) has been totally on the mark, yet has sadly gone ignored. Ironically three of the last 4 presidents have made a point of rebuking Washington, which if you ask me just makes the good General’s words that much more accurate. Had these warnings been heeded as they were given it would be a different, better world today. And in fact, I believe the way our leaders kicked the can down the road until now has directly led to the rebellion against the system which Trump represents. While the warnings are now a staple of the farewell addresses, I think it’s very important going forward that Presidents don’t wait until they’re on the way out to confront inconvenient flaws in our governmental processes. If no warning thus far has served as any kind of call to change, then it’s clear that we need to do more than just tell the new guy “hey, watch out for this dangerous trend I left for you!

These are all the warnings past Presidents have left us with, in chronological order:

  1. Political parties and foreign entanglements lead to gridlock and over-exertion. (Washington)

  2. Sectionalism and big banks enslave us and kept us divided so we don’t rise up against it. (Jackson)

  3. The military industrial complex starves our country of resources for our own people. (Eisenhower)

  4. Special interest groups hijack the political process and subvert the intended role of government. (Carter)

  5. People don’t love America enough (Reagan) [I mean…see how stupid this one is compared to the others?]

  6. Global poverty is a powder keg set to go off in a big way and upset the geopolitical order. (Clinton)

  7. Echo-chambers and unwillingness to engage different opinions make democracy impossible. (Obama)

2 Comments

  1. Hi Cassie, more good commentary. I remember listening to LBJ, I was very happy to see him go. Hay Hay LBJ how many boys did you kill today. His whole Vietnam war was a terrible waste and like so many young people of my generation I despised him for it. Too young for Truman and didn’t care enough about politics to listen to the others.

    1. I like LBJ overall but the vietnam war escalation is definitely a black mark on his legacy. But as Ive said before every president has at least one huge stain on their record. Some of my favorite Presidents are Lincoln, TR, FDR and Wilson. They suspended habeas corpus, warmongered, imprisoned US citizens and re-segregated the federal government, respectively. Theres never been a perfect president.

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