Above the couch in the reception area of Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) office, four framed photographs approximate some roughly bipartisan parity. Two feature former President Bill Clinton; the others are of President Bush, including one with Bush’s arm around Israel’s shoulder. Granted, the Clinton photos are hung higher, and one of the photos of Bush is largely obscured by a lampshade. But still — Bush makes his wall.
The president also makes Israel’s new book. His address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, in the wake of the terrorist attacks nine days prior, is the last speech included in Israel’s compilation of great military speeches, “Charge! History’s Greatest Military Speeches,” which was published recently by Naval Institute Press in Annapolis.
Moses’ rallying cries to the children of Israel, urging them to cross the Jordan River without him and recapture the Promised Land, starts off the collection with what many Jews and Christians believe to be a divinely inspired call to arms.
“Most people read the Bible as the Bible,” Israel said in an interview with Roll Call. “I do, too, but I also believe that Deuteronomy is a great military speech because it mobilizes people to take enormous risk for the greater good.”
It is this demand for risk and sacrifice that Israel said sets this speech — and indeed, “almost every other speech in the book” — from Bush’s Sept. 20 speech.
“The great failure of the speech is that it did not deliver. It did not ask all of the American people to sacrifice,” Israel said. He was on the House floor the night Bush delivered the speech, he said, and “I left the floor absolutely inspired, just as I imagine my predecessors left the floor after Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his Pearl Harbor speech.
“But I was very quickly disappointed,” he added. “I came to the conclusion that a speech without action is just a speech. A speech without shared sacrifice is just a speech. … The American people … want to do more. They want to be challenged.”
While most of the speeches in “Charge!” are directly connected to armed conflict, Israel admits there are some exceptions. John F. Kennedy’s challenge to America to reach the moon is included, as is his “Ich bin ein Berliner” and Ronald Reagan’s famous demand to “tear down this wall” in Berlin. They made the cut, Israel said, because they shared “certain commonalities” with the rest of the speeches: they “changed the course of history … they were always honest with people … and perhaps most important, they answered the most important question in any challenge: Why are we fighting?”
In addition to addresses from the usual suspects — Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, FDR and JFK all have multiple entries — are some that might raise a few eyebrows; Joseph Stalin makes the list, as does some profanity-laced bluster delivered by Gen. George S. Patton to his Third Army. The ancient Romans are represented, as are America’s Founding Fathers.
Fifteen short speeches by Napoleon Bonaparte, delivered from 1796 to 1815, all make the cut, too.
Despite his frustration with the Iraq War, Israel said he “took great comfort as I wrote this book. … Every generation of Americans has had their own ‘global wars on terror,’ but every generation has been summoned to rise to greatness, to do things they didn’t want to do. …You know, we’re not alone, we’re accompanied by history.”