In the Arena

A Good Day

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David Karp / AP

President Barack Obama who is in town for the 67th session of the General Assembly at United Nations speaks at UN Headquarters on Sept. 25, 2012

There have been so many dispiriting days during this campaign, but today was not one of them. In fact, it was a fine day of speech-making–two strong foreign policy speeches by President Obama and one by Mitt Romney. The speech that will get the most attention will be the President’s masterful address to the United Nations. Andrew Sullivan does it justice here. It will be received favorably in this country and around the world by everyone except Islamic extremists and neoconservatives, some of whom actually thought the President was apologizing for the despicable video that gave pretext for the Salafi riots and Al-Qaeda assaults in the Islamic world. He wasn’t, of course.

He was explaining. He was explaining freedom of speech to the global majority that knows it only as an aspiration. He was explaining American principles in a strong, civilized manner. There was a  firm rebuke to the powerless clown, Ahmadinejad, who was able to provoke media reaction with his usual anti-Israel and holocaust-denying swill. A firm warning to the Iranians about their nuclear program. Enough prosylitizing about freedom and free enterprise to thrill the Club for Growth. And, I must say, that Obama’s tribute to Ambassador Chris Stevens–who stood at the very opposite end of the human spectrum from the Salafis who killed him–was extremely moving. The principles Obama enunciated represent the broad, vast majority of opinion in the United States–and a growing reality in the world. It was the President at his best.

Obama was a bit more prosaic in his speech about human-trafficking to the Clinton Global Initiative a few hours after his UN address–until the very end, when he almost lost it while describing “a young girl, crying herself to sleep in a brothel…” The President stopped abruptly; his eyes teared over. It was the closest I’ve seen him come to losing his vaunted cool–but why not? What could be more appropriate than tears when considering this awful subject? Obviously, he was thinking about his own daughters and, through them, seeing the young girls brutalized by human slavery throughout the world including, in some cases, here. Yes, neoconservatives, here.

Earlier, Mitt Romney gave a fine speech about foreign policy to the Clinton group. It was a speech that emphasized his free enterprise philosophy as a force for change in the world. He proposed a new form of foreign aid–“Prosperity Pacts”–to advance the cause of rule of law and small business in developing countries. He chided the government for not moving quickly enough to move developmental aid away from governments to non-government organizations and 0ther private partnerships–although the pace of this sort of funding, especially at the State Department’s USAID program, has increased dramatically since Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State.

Romney’s was a conservative speech, a conservative view of the world, of the most efficacious ways to dispense foreign aid–but it was the sort of Burkean conservatism that has always been the very best thing about the Republican Party. He did not rant about the evils of foreign aid; he acknowledged the waste (that any disinterested observer would have to acknowledge) and proposed positive changes. It was as if, for one half hour of a grueling campaign, the Tea Party did not exist. We got to see who Mitt Romney might have been–smart, practical, worldly, humane and even, for once, funny–if his party weren’t so extreme and angry. If only the rest of the campaign could be like that.