Halfway through the Civil War a Boston businessman asked Abraham Lincoln to defend the war with "a plain letter to plain people." The result was the Gettysburg Address. But few at the time saw or heard its majesty. A reporter called it "silly, flat and dishwatery" and Lincoln himself sat down on the dais and said to a friend, "That speech won't scour." With two years of war still to go, Lincoln was a man on the ropes; even congressional ally Thaddeus Stevens, learning of Lincoln's plan to speak at the Gettysburg cemetery dedication, responded scornfully: "Let the dead bury the dead."
Historians-and Confederates who fired on Fort Sumter-know that Charleston, S.C., is an easy place to start a civil war but a hard place to end one. A day after the city hosted Democratic presidential hopefuls for a televised debate, President Bush visited Charleston Air Force Base. While the candidates sparred Monday night over which one could most quickly bring U.S. troops home, the president gave an impassioned speech Tuesday about why they should stay.
His speech was a rare discourse-given in an out-of-the way moment-into current intelligence-gathering in Iraq. Some specifics Bush ordered declassified just for the occasion. He highlighted recent captures by the U.S. military, including the April capture of senior Osama bin Laden advisor Abd al-Hadi on his way to Iraq and the July 4 seizure of Khaled al-Mashhadani, all to underscore the interwoven terrorist network plaguing Iraq. "Some will tell you that al-Qaeda in Iraq is not really al-Qaeda-and not really a threat to America," Bush said. "Well, that's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun, and saying he's probably just there to cash a check."
Reporters have noted that the president looks much older and battle worn these days, and in Charleston he brought to mind both Lincoln's high, plain rhetoric-and his ponderous delivery of it. The speech drew only a brief mention in The New York Times and in South Carolina papers. It might as well go down as "dishwatery," not for its lack of passion but its lack of audience to scour.
By rights "a plain letter" from a president no longer content to debate the threat that was in Iraq-i.e., his rationale for war-but the threat that is, should be welcome contrast to the politics of anger howling from the left. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) responded to the president's speech by accusing Bush of "trying to scare the American people into believing that al-Qaeda is the rationale for continuing the war in Iraq." Democrats for too long have gotten away with using their platform to accuse and deride rather than propose and live by. But where oh where are the Republicans? Apart from John McCain, not a GOP candidate has risen to give a compelling speech on Iraq. With a war-weary president on the ropes, let history and history's God be the right judge of his words. Let a new man stand and deliver.