The Good News About Yesterday's Duel

By Jim Wallis 05-22-2009

I'm in Germany at the biannual Kirchentag festival of faith of the German churches, so I missed the news and analysis of President Barack Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney's speeches in Washington, D.C., yesterday. I just listened to both, however, back-to-back.

In these speeches, we witnessed a rare moment of clarity, a moral clash in the interpretation of reality, and one of the starkest contrasts in competing visions that I have ever seen for the values, direction, and policies of our nation. In short, there was a choice offered to us yesterday for exactly what kind of country and people we want to be -- and what America will mean for us and for the world.

First, President Obama offered a dramatically new direction for achieving national security, after the "misguided experiment" of the Bush years. In a very powerful symbol, Obama chose the National Archives as the venue for this major address, pointing to the historic documents that are kept here-The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights-noting that these documents are "the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world," and clearly suggesting that they have been violated in the policies of the United States over the past several years, policies that included the systematic violation of legal rights and even the use of torture.

Then, just minutes later, former Vice President Cheney rose to speak at the American Enterprise Institute to aggressively defend and forcefully argue for a confident continuation of those very policies; and to vigorously attack the "contrived indignation and phony moralizing" that have critiqued the policies of the Bush/Cheney years (which some suggest should be called the Cheney/Bush years). Even Cheney admitted the "great dividing line" that stands between these two visions of national security. Candy Crowley of CNN called the dueling speeches "a tale of two universes." And they were.

The president began by saying that

... my single most important responsibility as president is to keep the American people safe. It's the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It's the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night.

But, he went on to say that

... I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values.

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