Blame John F. Kennedy for spoiling us for ever again appreciating a presidential speech. Nobody can top his inaugural address - its rhythmic pulse, its call to service of a younger generation, its invocation of America’s role leading the world.
Everything said since by any president — even Barack Obama, no slouch as an orator or a thinker — has seemed prosaic in comparison.
So we await the words of Donald J. Trump this month with low expectations.
Even his most ardent supporters wouldn’t call the president-elect eloquent; his opponents consider him downright inarticulate.
Give him credit, though, for speaking his mind without a filter, in language accessible to all, a habit that drew the affection of almost half of America’s voters. But don’t expect him to offer phrases on the Capitol steps that will ring in your ears or those of your grandchildren 56 years from now, in the way, “Ask not what your country can do for you …” still lives today, even for those who weren’t alive in 1961.
Yet what we might hope to hear in the words of our new president would be something more akin to another memorable presidential speech of the 20th century — the State of the Union address that Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered 76 years ago on Jan. 6, 1941.
It’s known as the “Four Freedoms Speech,” remembered perhaps as much now for the evocative paintings by Norman Rockwell that illuminated its major points.
What Roosevelt did in that speech — and what we might hope Trump can do in his — was articulate the values that would guide the nation in a perilous time.
He had particular policy goals that he hoped the speech would support, certainly, but the effect of his words was to inspire and unite citizens in a way that we desperately wish might be possible once again.
Roosevelt had won re-election to a third term by an unimpressive margin.
America was divided about the nation’s role in the ever-widening war in Europe.
Isolationists wanted no involvement in a war that wasn’t at our shores; interventionists thought America’s survival hinged on shutting down Nazi Germany.
Many historians believe FDR pulled out a victory over Republican Wendell Willkie by promising “that your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”
But FDR was at heart an interventionist, and he knew the United States couldn’t stand idly by as freedom was under siege.
So two months after the election, eager to unite the land for the fight he knew lay ahead, Roosevelt stood before Congress and declared that there were four “essential human freedoms” that people “everywhere in the world” ought to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear.
There were political forces at play behind FDR’s words, certainly.
Notably, the freedoms he articulated went beyond the freedom of worship and speech that the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees.
His insistence on freedom from want spoke to economic security, of the sort his New Deal had sought to deliver to a devastated economy; the notion of freedom from fear was a direct reference to the war under way in Europe.
Roosevelt wanted Americans to understand that the war was their fight, too.
So by insisting that those freedoms weren’t the province of Americans alone, he conveyed the notion that a threat to freedom anywhere was a threat to freedom here.
It was 11 months later that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II.
By that time, America had been vigorously helping its allies already engaged in warfare, and citizens were largely unified in the need to fight the global threat to freedom.
What set the speech apart was that it established the ideology of America in a terrifying time — an articulation of what Americans should be willing to fight for.
“As men do not live by bread alone,” Roosevelt said, “they do not fight by armaments alone.”
It’s that sort of raising of sights that we may earnestly hope to hear from Donald J. Trump in this fearsome time.
How remarkable it would be if such a positive message were to come from a man whose candidacy was largely an angry response to an America that his supporters seem to think no longer reflects their values.
Imagine turning the energy that enabled Trump to win 2,600 counties nationwide toward support for a message of America’s enduring values.
Imagine that those values include freedom from fear for all Americans — including gay Americans and black Americans — as well as freedom of religion for Muslim Americans, freedom from want for poor Americans and freedom of speech for dissident Americans.
Ask what Donald Trump can do for your country? That.
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union.
© 2015 Albany Times Union