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"Duty, Honor, Country"
I slowed down when walking past the old photographs hanging on the wall adjacent the coffee nook on the pool level of the Beverly Hilton hotel. They were beautiful photographs from the 1950s when Conrad Hilton built the iconic landmark, which quickly became an epicenter of Hollywood glamour. The walls capture that time. Among them are large black and whites that show a 30-something Senator John Kennedy standing with Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson at an event. Another shows the arrival of President Eisenhower at the hotel. I picked up my pace, but I kept thinking about those splendid old photos of giant figures from our past hanging on a wall in the smallest of times.
Another day, another poll. Today’s is another marker that plots the disintegration of trust between the American people and every conceivable institution of importance in the country. Predictably, the institutions for which Americans have the least confidence are Congress (8%), big business (14%) and TV media (14%).
I’m sharing a speech from 1962 by General Douglas MacArthur at West Point on the occasion of his receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award. He was 82 years old. The old general had come to make his farewell at the institution that was fundamental to his life and his nation’s life. Douglas MacArthur, the son of a great hero of the Civil War, became a titanic figure of the 20th century.
He was not a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination, but he was an utterly necessary and remarkable one. Douglas MacArthur was deified during his lifetime in multiple nations. He sullied his honor by accepting a large bribe from the Filipino president and was regarded as a dangerous, fascistic and ambitious man who could see a Caesar staring back at him in the mirror by many. Fired by Harry Truman for insubordination over his actions to escalate the Korean War into a nuclear conflict, MacArthur was far from perfect. He was an American hero with few peers when he stepped into Thayer Hall to deliver a speech about concepts that have gone nearly extinct in our extant culture. They matter as much as the air and water for our survival.
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There are a few things I’d like to point out about this 14-minute long speech:
It was delivered to a corps of cadets that would fight the Vietnam War and serve in the military through at least 1971. The US Military would unravel during those years and the American people would grow completely alienated from it. It would take a long time to build back trust. The young men MacArthur was speaking to went on to become members of some of the highest casualty classes in West Point history.
MacArthur was aesthetically a man of the 19th century. It is fascinating to listen to this speech through that prism. I have long considered this speech the last great oratory captured on a recording from a man born in the 19th century. The pace, diction, tone, vocabulary and drama are simply extraordinary. When listening to it, the silence is audible. He is speaking before as rapt an audience as possible. You could hear so much as a pin drop. Nothing. Total and absolute silence. The address is a masterclass of oratory and language. Amazingly, MacArthur delivered this version of a similar message without notes. It was extemporaneous. Put any political difference aside, the speech is a work of art. It is breathtaking.
If you do consider listening to it, here are some suggestions:
Play it through your TV or on your car stereo.
Do it when you can concentrate on listening for 14 uninterrupted minutes.
Focus on the words and be present. Don’t wander and drift off.
Try and absorb what he is saying, and then step back and think about this loathsome era at the edge of a new epoch.
American politics has been overwhelmed by the small, petty and brittle. Narcissists and sociopaths elbow each other for power and attention in a system that punishes integrity and rewards negligence, malice and corruption. It is an appalling hour. A nation cannot stand without any concept of the importance of character. It is fundamental. The absence of perfection and the fact that people fall short doesn’t mean the summit isn’t worth striving for. “Duty, Honor, Country.” These aren’t just words. They never have been. Are you ready to listen?