Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy, has written a beautiful piece for us about the scene within Eisenhower Hall last night. The first paragraphs are below, but we strongly recommend that you read the whole thing.
When, at 6:15 pm--known in local parlance as 1815--coveted ticket in hand, I boarded a bus with various members of the West Point community for the short ride to Eisenhower Hall to listen to President Obama, I thought about how very early we would be. But “Ike,” the second largest U.S. theater east of the Mississippi (only Radio City is bigger), was already full: cadets, over four thousand strong, had been there for hours. Body heat and a distinctive hum rose from the undulating dress-gray sea. (I confess that my immediate thought was to calculate whether my flu shot had had sufficient time to kick in.)
The cadets, eminently practical, had brought something to do: Many were hunched over graph paper, calculators, textbooks, or novels. A few were dozing tranquilly. Hurry up, the saying goes, and wait ... and wait. I searched unsuccessfully for cadets in my poetry class. They were, I hoped, using the time to study two Civil War poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “From Trollope’s Journal” and Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” in preparation for our next meeting.
Cadets are gathered together not infrequently in one of various auditoriums to listen to statesmen, generals, pundits, or performers. But presidents are a special case. “Two presidents in two years!” I overheard one cadet say to another with a kind of wonder as he recollected that then-President Bush had visited only last December.Over the years, the rhetoric directed at the Corps of Cadets has ranged from the lofty to the earthy. At the 1962 commencement, President Kennedy addressed Cold War anxieties: “I know that many of you may feel ... that in ... the nuclear age, when war may last in its final form a day or two or three days before much of the world is burned up, that your service to your country will be only standing and waiting. … Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediate visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.” Would the cadets in my poetry class have recognized the allusion to Milton?