Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich went on television yesterday and gave a speech to remember. What people will remember about the speech are the catchy phrases: “I will fight, I will fight, I will fight until I take my last breath” has received perhaps the most notoriety.
As others have noted, Blagojevich’s “fight” words were an allusion to Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. Churchill’s speech is one of my all-time favorites, and commonly is viewed as representing the ability of a people to overcome overwhelming adversity through a willingness to fight to the end alone. Blagojevich clearly has this understanding as witnessed by his statement that “I know there are some powerful forces arrayed against me. It’s kind of lonely right now.”
I have been an advocate for Bagojevich doing just what he is doing, making the government prove its case promptly and in public. If Blagojevich is guilty, the facts should be laid bare for all the world to see as soon as possible; if Blagojevich is innocent, then he deserves quick public vindication. Regardless of the outcome, however, to me Blagojevich’s allusion to Churchill is unforgivable.
Churchill’s “fight on the beaches” speech was made before the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, less than one month after taking office and just days after 338,000 Allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. Although viewed historically as a massive defeat, at the time the Dunkirk rescue of troops was viewed as a triumph. Churchill’s speech was meant to caution Britain about the reality of what was happening in continental Europe.
Sorry, Governor, but your political and legal problems do not quite rise to the level of Britain standing up alone against Hitler’s armies in 1940. You may be right to fight on, but you were wrong to compare yourself to Winston Churchill.
Two weeks later, on June 18, 1940, Churchill gave my other favorite speech, commonly referred to as “Their Finest Hour.” At that point, France had completely fallen, there was no chance of continental Europe coming to Britain’s defense, and the invasion of Britain looked infinitely more certain than just two weeks earlier. What was at stake was the survival of more than one individual or nation:
I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
I do not know what will be the outcome of the Blagojevich trials and tribulations, although I look forward to tracking them carefully. But I have a deep sense that history will say that the speech Blagojevich gave on Friday, December 19, 2008, was not his finest hour.