Alan Zendell, December 25, 2020
It wasn’t too long ago that the worst thing we had to bear on Christmas was a presidential address filled with empty platitudes. One of the more heartfelt was Harry Truman’s first such address in 1945. “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years. With peace comes joy and gladness. The gloom of the war years fades…” Lovely sentiments, except that the Cold War was already underway, the nuclear arms race was beginning to spiral out of control, and the gloom of war had been quickly replaced by paranoia over Communism.
Eight years later we had already emerged from another war, this one in Korea. The first major confrontations of the Cold War, the three-year-long Greek Civil War and the Berlin Airlift were behind us, but hydrogen bombs were being tested in the Soviet Union and the South Pacific. President Eisenhower remarked that “this Christmas is truly a season of good will—and our first peaceful one since 1949.” A literally true statement, but one that ignored the anxious undercurrent in the country. We were entering the fourth year of the Communist conspiracy-driven McCarthy hearings, starring Roy Cohn, who later became a Mafia consigliere and mentor in sleaze training to Donald Trump.
In his 1962 Christmas address, President Kennedy said, “…we greet each other at Christmas with some special sense of the blessings of peace.” Unfortunately, that special sense was the sigh of relief that came from just having dodged a huge bullet, the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. It omitted that were charging headlong into yet another foreign war in Vietnam which would tear the country apart. Finally, that special sense ignored internal conflicts which released the bullet Kennedy couldn’t dodge, making 1962 his last Christmas.
At his first National Christmas Tree Lighting in 1969, President Nixon promised more television sets, more automobiles, clean air and water, and an end to hunger, concluding that the decade of the seventies would be one “in which we could celebrate our Christmases at peace with all the world.” I can only wonder which delusional alternate reality he inhabited. Far more real and genuine was President Ford’s 1975 Christmas message. At a time when the nation still reeled from Vietnam and the corruption of Watergate, Ford recalled Christmases when “the only thing we had to offer each other … was the love we shared, and the faith that together we could see things through to a better future.” That year, he said, Americans could finally “honor the Prince of Peace in a nation at peace.” And for a while, that they could.
President Clinton’s final Christmas message addressed his hope for America in the twenty-first century. “We must embrace boldly and resolutely that duty to lead—to stand with our allies in word and deed … America cannot lead in the world unless we … treat all our people with fairness and dignity, regardless of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, and regardless of when they arrived in our country.” He convinced me that day.
President George W. Bush, attempting to emulate the inspirational Christmas messages of Ronald Reagan, offered a message of hope in his 2001 address, three months after nine-eleven. “The year now ending saw a few acts of terrible evil. It also saw many more acts of courage and kindness and love. And these reflect the great hope of Christmas: A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” Alas, that hope shortly evaporated amid the lies that began our eighteen-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Christmas messages from the Obamas, much like those of the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, were always uplifting, stressing American values, diversity, and inclusion. No matter what was happening in the world, any anger they both expressed was directed outward, at nations who failed to respect rights of all their citizens or the sovereignty of their neighbors. For Americans, we heard only love and the hope that the nation would continue to move forward and overcome its internal divisions. Despite having been savaged repeatedly during the 2016 election campaign by his successor, Obama wouldn’t tarnish the dignity of his office. Foreshadowing the negativity and chaos that was to follow, Obama’s final message spoke of “treat[ing] others as we would want to be treated…car[ing] for the sick…feed[ing] the hungry…and welcom[ing] the stranger…no matter where they come from, or how they practice their faith.”
After what we have endured in 2020, it would be wonderful to have a president capable of expressing genuine empathy for the havoc Americans are experiencing this Christmas. But perhaps it’s best if President Trump just plays golf and keeps his mouth shut.