As preparation for President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, I’ve reread two noted presidential speeches delivered days apart, half a century ago. I need not dwell on JFK’s inaugural; many of us know its stirring cadences by heart. Its cardinal virtue is courage; its mood, audacity; its ambition, not just global but galactic. It is a young man’s speech, self-consciously so.
Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address is the surprise. It is remembered, of course, for its warning against the “acquisition of unwarranted influence ... by the military-industrial complex.” But the real point of the speech is moral. Eisenhower cautions against “any failure traceable to arrogance.” He highlights the perennial temptation to believe that “some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” Meeting the challenge of a hostile ideology calls for, “not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle.”
We are required, Eisenhower insists, to think not just of ourselves, but of posterity. In words even more relevant today than 50 years ago, he declares that “we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”
The foundation stone of Eisenhower’s farewell address is the necessity of preserving balance in all things—“balance between the public and private economy; balance between cost and hoped for advantage; balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the moment. Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.”
Consistent with this theme is Eisenhower’s celebration of bipartisanship. “Our people,” he says, “expect their president and the Congress to find essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the nation.” Fortunately, he continues, their expectations have not been disappointed: In his eight presidential years, “the Congress and the administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the nation should go forward.”
The tone of Eisenhower’s speech is pacific throughout. Rather than a summons to greatness, it is a warning against hubris. If the cardinal virtue of JFK’s speech is courage, that of Eisenhower’s is prudence. Courage finds its natural home in war; prudence is a virtue for all seasons. In many ways we are a better country than we were 50 years ago. Nonetheless, I cannot help wondering whether, in the process of becoming better, we have lost, first our balance, then our way. In a moment of exasperation, the president I served once complained that we’re all Eisenhower Republicans now. We could do worse.
William Galston is a former policy advisor to Bill Clinton and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.