Ed Driscoll

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love President Friedman

James Taranto on the yet another tacit shout-out from President Obama to his favorite unpaid speechwriter, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times:

The truth is, there’s an Emperor’s New Clothes aspect to Obama’s supposed status as the World’s Greatest Orator. We’ve heard the myth of his eloquence over and over, yet he keeps “unexpectedly” making gaffes or tin-eared statements. Here’s the big one from his speech last night: “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”

The term “nation building” was popularized by George W. Bush during a 2000 presidential debate with then-Vice President Al Gore. The soon-to-be president used it as a term of derision:

The vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders. I believe the role of the military is to fight and win war and therefore prevent war from happening in the first place. . . .

If we don’t have a clear vision of the military, if we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world and nation building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road, and I’m going to prevent that. I’m going to rebuild our military power. It’s one of the major priorities of my administration.

Bush himself was subsequently accused of “nation building” in Afghanistan and Iraq, after the attacks of 9/11 caused a dramatic change in the course of his presidency. Whatever the merits of those criticisms, though, Bush’s view of “nation building” as a vain, costly and wasteful distraction from national security seems to have prevailed.

So why in the world would Obama expect a call for “nation building at home” to resonate? Not only is nation building a discredited idea, but the implication is that the U.S. is a pathetic wreck of a country like Kosovo or Afghanistan or Iraq. Undeniably, America has its problems, but many of them are caused or aggravated by an obtrusive government. We don’t need to be “built,” just left alone to maintain and reinvigorate ourselves.

The answer appears to be that once again, the World’s Greatest Orator is taking his rhetorical cues from the Worst Writer in the English Language. Remember the “Sputnik moment,” the trope in Obama’s State of the Union Address that was supposed to inspire us to get excited about whatever boondoggles he’s pushing this year? Neither did we; we have to delve into our archives to be reminded of the details.

But we remembered who used that forgettable phrase first: Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. And Commentary’s Abe Greenwald reminds us that “nation building at home” is another of Friedman’s tropes. On Nov. 28, 2010, Reason’s Matt Welch noted that in Friedman’s column of that day, “the phrase ‘nation-building at home’ makes two appearances, ‘nation-building in America’ makes two more, and there’s a fifth ‘nation-building’ in there, presumably for collectors.”

Noting that Friedman had been beating that drum for 2½ years, Welch titled his post “Thomas L. Friedman: Nation-Building at Home Just as Crucial a Slogan Now as it Was 14 Columns Ago.” Make that 15. On March 23, Friedman wrote: “If the president is ready to take some big, hard, urgent, decisions, shouldn’t they be first about nation-building in America, not in Libya?”

Still, that’s only one column in almost seven months, vs. almost one every other month in the period before Welch noted it. And Friedman has not mentioned Sputnik in any column since we called him on that one after the State of the Union.

How can anyone take seriously Barack Obama’s status as the World’s Greatest Orator when he uses Friedmanisms that have become so Friedmanistic that even Friedman avoids them?

Mort Zuckerman of New York Daily News once claimed that he helped to write one of then-presidential candidate Obama’s speeches. Fareed Zakaria of CNN and Time magazine was happy to puff out his chest and declare himself an advisor to the president until called on his rhetoric. And this is twice now that one a riff from a prominent New York Times columnist appears in a speech by the president. Perhaps someone from the Times could ask how surprised and enchanted Friedman feels about this tacit homage.

In 2008, the kids on the JournoList dubbed themselves the presidential candidate’s “non-official campaign” as his collective megaphone. Maybe they simply had it backwards?