The challenges of wartime are not just military. If a country is to succeed in its mission, the citizenry must be mobilized in support. As hokey as it may sound, that includes the willingness of entertainers to build the morale of the troops on the battlefront. The careers of performers from Bob Hope to Jon Stewart have included extensive tours of the front lines. Certain kinds of exhibitionism – pin-ups, stage strutting and suggestive repartee – were excused in front of the troops in a way that would never be tolerated for family entertainment. And the movies celebrated their own with films like “White Christmas” and “For the Boys.”
One of the performers who risked her safety to entertain the troops was Jane Froman, a very popular singer of the 1930s-1950s. She barely survived a plane crash in Portugal while on a USO tour in 1943, but she came through multiple surgeries and continued to perform in spite of disabling injury and pain. The story of her life was made into a movie called “With a Song in My Heart.” Rodgers and Hart wrote the music and lyrics, including the title song. It is a lush celebration of the love that wells up within when “I behold your adorable face,” “I’m touching your hand” and “at the sound of your voice.”
I have a point, I promise.
The last thing Moses does before he climbs to the top of Mt. Nebo to see the Promised Land and then die is to recite a song. The word for song in Hebrew – shira – is also the word for poem, so I cannot tell you whether Moses declaimed or sang this set of words. But God gave him the instruction to teach the Israelites the song (Deuteronomy 31:19), to “put it in their mouths.” In other words, make them memorize it.
The purpose is ingenious. There will come a time, says God, when the people will forget their commitments and turn away from God. But if they have memorized this song (which, no surprise, is about God’s faithfulness and Israel’s lack thereof), then it will serve as a corrective and they will be able to return to the right path.
The men and women who defend our country have no such song in their mouths to recite, and the entertainers who travel to distant shores to perform for them are not singing Rodgers and Hart ballads to remind them of the love that sustains them. But that’s not to say they don’t need something to keep them grounded. In fact, that’s not to say that those of us who have not invested part or all of our lives in military service don’t need something to keep us grounded.
That song needs to be both inspirational and comprehensible. We have a national anthem that is some of the former and little of the latter. As Albert Brooks said a generation ago, you never hear anyone walking down the street and signing “The Star Spangled Banner” to themselves. Without a renewed song in our hearts and mouths, the inspiring words that form our national foundation will become nonsense syllables – “e plebneesta” -- that let our warriors and our citizens slide into meaningless conflict. *
Here is what I am hoping. There are few opportunities after November 8 for the lame-duck President of the United States to address the people. But I hope he does it. Our defenders need to be inspired. The citizens who are rushing to separate corners need to come together. We need a song to be put in our mouths and one to reside in our hearts.
I know some of you don’t like this guy. I know some of you think he can do no wrong. But here is what is true about President Barack Obama: he has served honorably and without a whiff of personal scandal, unless you count the cigarettes he had to sneak while he was trying to quit. And he, like Moses, knows how to sing a swan song.
*”The Omega Glory,” Star Trek 2:23