By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – Neil Armstrong wasn’t mentioned by President Obama in the “you didn’t get there alone” speech that fired up Republicans. The president did mention the 1960s moon mission that made Armstrong’s a household name, but it was too little, too late.
The speech was on July 13 in Roanoake, Va. As with many political speeches, it was filled with contradictions. As also often happens with political speeches, the controversial part wasn’t initially noticed. Even the Roanoke Times didn’t report Obama’s troublesome phrases the next morning. No matter, Obama’s campaign foes later discovered them and have used them to hammer him.
The president was illustrating his belief – his wedge issue – that rich people need to pay more taxes. Here’s what he said:
“There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me – because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t – look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own.” (emphasis added) The president mentioned that America has a lot of smart, hardworking people. Not all are millionaires. And he continued:
“If you were successful, somebody along the way gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” (emphasis added)
On one level, the president’s words were a call to community, a recognition that all enterprises are collaborative. Sometimes there is a shared vision, such as NASA employees accepting the challenge issued in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy. At other times there is individual initiative, such as a young person who creates a company and doesn’t rest in his or her efforts to make it succeed.
Either way, as the president said, others are always involved. After all, none of us gave birth to ourselves. Too, government is usually involved in some way – providing schools or roads or laws and regulations that punish unfair business practices.
No one can argue with Obama’s accuracy there.
Where the president was intellectually dishonest was by implying that wealthy, successful Americans who “want to give something back” (1) can’t do it unless tax laws are changed or (2) may only “give back” through government.
If Warren Buffett or Oprah Winfrey feel moved to give billions, the U.S. Treasury will gladly accept and deposit their checks. America takes donations.
More to the point, private philanthropy does the most good in the world. Harvard was created by rich people. So was Vanderbilt. AIDS has been attacked effectively in Africa by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Millions upon millions of private donations have been poured into the Mississippi Delta to fight poverty and its effects. Good things, large and small, happen in America every minute of every day without a cent of government money or involvement. There are vastly more ways to “give back” than through paying taxes.
That the president failed to mention that is worrisome, but more worrisome is that it betrays a lack of understanding that people need heroes – that having leaders is essential to progress in any endeavor and our culture is inspired by model citizens, including Neil Armstrong.
America’s greatness is by design. Government’s promise was to level the playing field and get out of the way. This has allowed people – individuals – to put their talents to work for their own betterment and to help those around them. Giving our respect and admiration to innovators and pioneers has led to creation of more innovators and pioneers.
Pitting the more numerous non-rich among the smaller group of rich folks serves the purpose of electoral math. One hopes the president knows better, that he understands it isn’t government that makes America tick. Even so, it was disingenuous for the president to seek to diminish or parse the power of people to control their own destinies.
Armstrong, who died Aug. 25, never embraced celebrity. He knew being the first person on the moon was not a singular act. But in his own quiet way he understood that someone had to be the symbol of an unprecedented engineering and scientific accomplishment.
Having heroes is good for a culture. It feeds our aspirations.
A president should know that. A president should never think, much less say, “If you have a business – you didn’t build that.” And given another chance, Barack Obama isn’t likely to say it again.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.