I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” our president told the graduates of West Point on May 28. Not bad for someone who five long years ago thought his country no more exceptional than Greece. He came up with other uncharacteristic howlers, too: “America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world.” “Our military has no peer.” “Our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth.” He bragged about trouble spots where under his leadership America has made a huge difference, most notably Ukraine. He praised Ukrainians for voting in the millions on May 25. “Yesterday, I spoke to their next president,” Obama added, without naming him. Perhaps he didn’t catch his name on CNN, or was afraid to be provocative. A week later he had a chance to meet him in Kiev, but that would have been doubly provocative. So it had to be in Warsaw, with fingers crossed. Now the Vistula, Poland’s largest river, is great in its own right, but Mr. Obama would have been better off had he caught a glimpse of the Dnieper. If he wants to get to know Petro Poroshenko’s country, its psyche, its perspectives, its longevity, its place, we recommend he read Matthew Omolesky’s elegant essay (p. 28). Knowing him, alas, we expect he’ll save it for a rainy day on Martha’s Vineyard. And then neglect to take it with him to Hawaii.
To be sure, Mr. Obama has more in mind than his upcoming vacations. He is, after all, commander in chief and must regain the confidence of a military he has badly served. The Veterans Affairs scandal was the last straw. He thought he’d found a clever way out by agreeing to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban terrorists, only to see the deal blow up in his face. Perhaps he will find consolation in Peter Hitchens’ reflections on the continuing disastrous results of World War I (p. 24). No doubt he’s hoping we’ll be feeling the consequences of his foreign policy a century from now.
There’s no escaping him, unless it’s by returning to an earlier time for a six-week summer trip by train across the U.S. from one coast to the other and back. Gerald Nachman (p. 32), our lucky traveler, grew up in an America that didn’t need a president to tell it that it’s not in decline, an America that had dreams and excitement and a great ballpark in Chicago and stunning new musicals in New York City and fathers who seemed distant but larger than life and adults who were grown up and children who hoped to be so one day. There was a big world out there.
There still is, and summer is the perfect season for it, especially if in fine company, such as the engaging contributors to our symposium on summer fun (p. 14).
My memory keeps going back to the one time I swam in the Dnieper, on a nice wooded beach on a small island along Kiev’s left bank. At a certain point far in the distance I detected a ship of sorts slowly coming down river. I paid it no mind until suddenly it was nearer—and huge, and moving steady and true. A coal-filled barge about thirty yards directly in front of me. I didn’t see my life passing in front of me, just relentless time. I worry our president would have only seen the coal.