Let’s face it, Obama’s speech on the San Bernardino massacres was a flop. He was all the things we have come to associate with him - cool, rational, unflappable, decent. His speech reflected those qualities perfectly and all it produced was a yawn.
He needed to meet Pericles.
Pericles was in a similar fix in 430 BCE when he confronted an Athenian populace frightened by a plague as bad as devastating as the Ebola epidemic, in a war they didn’t really want, locked into a strategy that was not producing short term results and would require immense patience to see through to a successful conclusion. That was Pericles’ war and his strategy wasn’t working. The Athenians were angry and wanted to get rid of him and all he stood for.
He called them together, and gave ‘em hell. “I am the same man and do not change. It is you who have changed.” After all, they had voted for his policy and he was not going to let them off the hook: It’s the duty of every citizen to come to the defense of their country, “and not like you to be so confused by problems at home that you give up all thought of our collective safety.” His tone is confident and steady, though it can modulate as he turns sympathetic, indicating that he understands what they have been through and that their “grief is now taking hold of each individual’s perception of the situation, “ s one might expect since “an enslavement of the mind comes about when something sudden, unexpected and highly irrational takes place.”
Pericles is not held back by modesty. “You blame me, … but I am second to none in knowing what needs to be done.” And he lays out the same old strategy, nothing new, after all in his view it is the right one. But he knows how to evoke the achievement of earlier generations, and the greatness of Athens. He is n about to yield drop the trump card of greatness into the hand of some demagogue; fortitude, he says, “was the old way of Athens; don’t you keep it from being that way still. Remember, too, that if your country has the greatest name in all the world, it is because it has never bent before disaster.” And as for hatred of him, and hatred of Athens, it will not endure: “Hatred has a short lifespan, but the source of our splendid present achievements and our reputation in the future will never die.”
Did the speech work? Yes and no. It was famed in the contrast between what individuals want for themselves and what’s good for society as whole. That’s what Pericles got. His fellow citizens went ahead and removed him as their chief commander, but they stuck by his policies. “Not long afterwards, however,” Thucydides writes in the second boo pf his History of the Peloponnesian War, “… they again chose him as commander and put all their affairs in his hands … understanding that he was the best man of all for what the country needed.”
So, words of passion, glory and defiance got Pericles what he wanted. He didn’t let any demagogue expropriate the idea of making Athens great. Maybe he still has a word or two of advice for our commander in chief.