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State of Denial 

by Robert Herold & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & ack in 1982, with inflation still high and unemployment even higher, and with growing deficits staring him down, Ronald Reagan would not be discouraged. In his State of the Union message, the Gipper went for the proven winners and associated himself with all of them:





But from this podium, Winston Churchill asked the free world to stand together against the onslaught of aggression. Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of a day of infamy and summoned a nation to arms. Douglas MacArthur made an unforgettable farewell to a country he loved and served so well. Dwight Eisenhower reminded us that peace was purchased only at the price of strength. And John F. Kennedy spoke of the burden and glory that is freedom.





And America felt better. It isn't clear that America was better; but most in America surely felt better. Reagan was especially welcomed because, as we know, he succeeded the king of the downer, the master of malaise, Jimmy "come let us wring our hands together" Carter.


Reagan, though, wasn't the first to rely on the sunny State of the Union message. Actually, he was typical. Consider these openings from three State of the Union addresses.





Our country is at peace. Our national defense has been maintained at a high state of effectiveness. All of the executive departments of the government have been conducted during the year with a high devotion to public interest. There has been a far larger degree of freedom from industrial conflict than hitherto known. Education and science have made further advances. The public health is today at its highest known level. While we have recently engaged in the aggressive contest of a national election, its very tranquility and the acceptance of its results furnish abundant proof of the strength of our institutions.





Throughout the year since our last meeting, the country has been eminently prosperous in all its material interests. The general health has been excellent, our harvests have been abundant and plenty smiles throughout the land. Our commerce and manufactures have been prosecuted with energy and industry, and have yielded fair and ample returns. In short, no nation in the tide of time has ever presented a spectacle of greater material prosperity than we have done until within a very recent period.





Another year of health and of sufficiently abundant harvests has passed. For these, and especially for the improved condition of our national affairs, our renewed and profoundest gratitude to God is due.





Who and when? Give up?


The first quote, delivered by Herbert Hoover, comes from his 1932 State of the Union address, delivered at the deepest time of the Depression when unemployment ran around 25 percent; Hoover would lose to Franklin Roosevelt later that year. The second quote, delivered by James Buchanan, was in 1860; Buchanan would lose to Abraham Lincoln later that year, the south would secede within 12 months, and in April 1861, the Civil War would begin with the Confederate siege of Fort Sumter. The third passage, delivered by Abraham Lincoln, comes from his State of the Union delivered in 1863, just following the Union massacre at Fredericksburg, a few months before the disaster Chancellorsville, before the tide turned with Union victories on July 3 at Gettysburg and "out west" at Vicksburg.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Gipper might have written any of these lines, and under any of these circumstances. Or, maybe mix and match. Euphemisms are often interchangeable.


Hoover, staring at economic collapse the likes of which the country had never seen before, reminds America that the government is running efficiently, that labor strife is at an all-time low and our institutions are performing admirably. Buchanan, who would, in the same speech, chastise antislavery agitators, in his opening paragraph speaks of great harvests, the health of our industries and smiles to go around. And even Lincoln, who at the time he delivered this speech had just fired his sixth general of the Union army for reasons of incompetence, having just seen his army slaughtered 60 miles down the road, speaks of abundant harvests and improving improved conditions of national affairs.


Government by euphemism. They've all done it.


Well, no, Carter didn't. A hardwired pietist, Carter personified the word "downer," and his State of the Union messages caught the flavor. From his warnings about the energy crisis (you remember, "the moral equivalent of war" -- that line turned everyone off) to out-of-control inflation to the Iran hostage debacle; Jimmy, our resident Cassandra, didn't disappoint his diminishing legion of loyal followers with the opening of his 1980 address:





This last few months has not been an easy time for any of us. As we meet tonight, it has never been more clear that the state of our Union depends on the state of the world. And tonight, as throughout our own generation, freedom and peace in the world depend on the state of our Union.





Contrast Carter's sun-deprived call to depression with Lincoln who, just after suffering almost 14,000 casualties to only 4,200 Confederate casualties, could thank God for how good things were.


It is a scary thought, though, to realize that we may be addicted to government by euphemism. And sometimes, especially when surrounded by outbursts of patriotism driven by too much civic testosterone, euphemisms can cause us to blow it.
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