In June 2009, I spent a week at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, embedded with 19 colonels from all branches of our military, including one Special Forces officer who was about to deploy for the seventh time.
I’d been invited, along with eight other civilians, for an open exchange of views and ideas. And true to their word, there was no such thing as an off-limits topic.
We intensely debated the current wars, all religions, torture, Guantanamo Bay, terrorism domestic and foreign, the First and Second Amendments, the staggering responsibilities of the office of the president, and the state of talk news — specifically FOX and MSNBC and radio blusterers like Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus — as useless infotainment.
To that point, our first day opened with then-new President Barack Obama speaking live from Egypt. When his speech ended and the talking heads appeared, the TV went dark. Someone printed out hard copies of the speech, and the colonels around the table pored over every word from their commander-in-chief — parsing, circling, underlining and check-marking.
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And for the next hours we weighed and debated every possible interpretation and repercussion.
Because words matter.
Particularly every word of the president of the United States.
In the weeks since Donald Trump won the White House, friends who do not follow politics have shared some iteration of this with me: “Why are people so wound up? It’s politics, no matter who wins. Who cares?”
The first time someone asked this, I felt stunned. How can you not care?!
But as we barrel toward Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, I understand the apathy. I fiercely disagree, but I understand.
After a two-year election cycle, and with the president-elect’s constant gaffes and conflicts of interest and attack-first tendencies, and now the camera trained 24/7 on the lobby of Trump Tower reducing our democracy to a reality TV show, our next president and all that comes with him are, frankly, exhausting.
But to not care?
I thought immediately of the 19 colonels I’d met eight years ago at the War College, about how brilliant and thoughtful they were, about the Special Forces officer deploying for his seventh tour. And not caring felt like a colossal, disrespecting slap. At them. At their families. At America.
I dug up my notes from June 2009, and there it was. Day one. Obama’s Egypt speech. Of the dozens of details the colonels extrapolated, one simple, seemingly throw-away observation stood out: “Words matter. The world is listening. He pronounced all the words properly, and that’s huge.”
Which is why we should care. Words are exactly where our president-elect falls dangerously short. It’s like he doesn’t realize his words, every single one of them, matter.
For instance, he spent the last two weeks taking a victory lap, whipping up his crowd of worshippers. “You people were vicious, violent, screaming!” For what purpose? And he has yet to reach out to the millions who did not vote for him. Why?
He has not, and may never, hold a press conference.
He has not once expressed concern, nor even mentioned, the women and children being massacred in Aleppo. Murdered by their president with the support of a dictator the president-elect defends, Vladimir Putin.
He tells us, tells the world, he has no patience for intelligence briefings, no time for information gathered by the men and women who risk their lives—THEIR LIVES— to obtain it.
He tweets insults and barbs, equally and unprovoked, at a union leader in Indiana, Vanity Fair, past opponents and China.
He tweets. At China.
He refuses to believe the 17 American agencies telling him that Putin and Russia interfered in our election, reminding us why so many respected newspapers warned his election would be a threat to the republic.
As those dedicated and thoughtful patriots at the War College said back in 2009, “Words matter. The world is listening.” And our president-elect’s words matter, most of all.
Yes, the election is over. But this is not politics as usual. We are all Americans. And we owe it to each other to care.
Teri Carter is a writer living in Lawrenceburg.