Words and symbolism are powerful tools of great leaders. Speeches can define an event for the ages. Images and courage can compel action. Great leaders create and transform opinions and move people.
Winston Churchill addressed his nation in June 1940 as Nazi Germany stood ready to invade England: “We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!” During the Battle of Britain, Prime Minister Churchill courageously toured London after every bombing so the English people could see him and so he could strengthen their resolve for the challenges ahead. Against all odds and in opposition to some in his cabinet who wanted to sue for peace, Churchill stood alone against Nazi tyranny. He saved England and arguably the world.
On March 5, 1946, Churchill spoke at Westminister College in Fulton, Missouri, with President Harry S. Truman in attendance. He famously and courageously said, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended upon the continent.” Churchill’s courageous declaration that Soviet tyranny dominated Eastern Europe is credited for steeling the West against further Soviet aggression and launching a worldwide defense of freedom.
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy visited Berlin on June 26, 1963, 22 months after the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall, a symbol of the oppression and brutality of Communist Russia. President Kennedy stood in West Berlin before thousands of West Germans who lived in daily fear of Russian attack and said, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum (“I am a Roman citizen”). Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner … All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” His words demonstrated American commitment to the cause of freedom and solidarity with Europe.
Twenty four years later, standing against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall and the Brandenburg Gates, President Ronald Reagan spoke to a massive crowd of Berliners at a time when the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev had signaled the possibility of an opening (Glasnost). Many advisors urged caution, but President Reagan understood the power of words and symbolism. He overruled his advisors, famously and courageously proclaiming, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Two years later, the Berlin Wall came down, and freedom came to Eastern Europe.
Following the attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush visited the devastation and rubble of lower Manhattan. He grabbed a bullhorn and began speaking to the rescue workers at Ground Zero. A rescue worker yelled to President Bush, “I can’t hear you.” President Bush responded, “I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The rescue workers began chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.” Simple words but they demonstrated strength, clarity and conviction of purpose.
When President Bush threw out the first pitch of the third 2011 World Series game at New York’s Yankee Stadium, his appearance alone demonstrated a defiance of the terrorists and commitment to the American way of life.
Last week, Paris saw the slaughter of many of its citizens by Islamic terrorists. They died for daring to use religious satire that Islamic extremists found offensive. The leaders of the free world gathered in Paris to march in solidarity with the people of Paris and show a unity of purpose and commitment to freedom. Shoulder to shoulder marched the Prime Minister of Great Britain, the French President, the Chancellor of Germany, the Prime Minister of Israel and many others. Symbols have meaning, foster commitment and resolve and forge unity of purpose. Leaders understand instinctively that words, symbols and actions are critical. These leaders are to be commended.
In his first remarks following the horrific Paris massacre, Barrack Obama failed to mention Islamic extremism. Instead of attending the march in Paris, Barack Obama watched the NFL playoffs on television and awaited his meet and greet the next day with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. Our “leader” sent a clear and unequivocal message of indifference and lack of resolve to the Islamic Jihadists and the world.