A One Sentence History

by Derrick G. Jeter

A sentence or two is enough to read

The greatness or smallness of a deed.


This little ditty came to mind when I read a piece Peggy Noonan recently published in The Wall Street Journal (“To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs”), in which she recounted a piece of advice Clare Boothe Luce passed on to President John F. Kennedy: “‘a great man is one sentence.’” Noonan commented, “His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. . . . History has imperatives, and sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are met, and sometimes not. When they’re clear and met, you get quite a sentence”1 No one has to tell you that Abraham Lincoln “saved the Union and freed the slaves.” That’s quite a sentence.


Noonan went on to argue that President Obama is facing just such a moment—a deep recession at home and trouble abroad (namely North Korea and Iran). I agree, Obama is facing a clear historic moment. What will his sentence be? She proposed a sentence for the president that would serve him and the country well, if only he could be content with the simplicity of her sentence. You get the impression he wouldn’t and couldn’t, though this sentence is no small thing. Here is what she wished for Barack Obama: “‘He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror.’”2


Regrettably, based on what we’ve seen thus far—immoral amounts of money spent on bailouts, the nationalization of General Motors, shocking proposals to nationalize healthcare and push through an energy policy based on bogus science, the plan to close Guantanamo Bay without a placement plan for detainees, the non-response to North Korea’s nuclear saber rattling, and his two beats behind the music comments on the violent suppression of Iranian protesters—I think his sentence will read something like this: “He propelled us further down the road to socialism and left us vulnerable in the age of terror.” To be sure, the final sentence is yet to be written, but the pen is already to the page.


Noonan advised the president to stop looking for a better sentence than the one she proposed; “There isn’t a better one.”3 Given the scribbling he’s already made, Obama must think there is. There isn’t—and we’d be better off if he’d scratch through the sentence he has started and begin writing another one.


What do you think? What sentence would you write for President Obama?



1. Peggy Noonan, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs,” The Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124596573543456401.html (accessed June 29, 2009).

2. Noonan, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs.”

3. Noonan, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs.”