High tech, high drama, high stakes and high hopes combined Wednesday to allow Volodymyr Zelensky to sit in Kyiv and push buttons 7,800 kilometres away in Washington. He pushed them all.
U.S. lawmakers sat on light brown cushions in the Capitol complex as the Ukrainian President, with his capital under attack, pummelled by relentless Russian shelling, spoke surrounded by dark grey sandbags. He wore an olive-green battle T-shirt, addressing lawmakers who work in a chamber where the words “liberty” and “peace” are engraved on the walnut rostrum.
The message was at once sober and sombre. His country is being overrun, he is facing captivity or death, the world is watching and he is pleading for help. “We need you right now,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky is conducting a modern travelling salvation show, a virtual tour of the halls of power in Brussels, Westminster and Parliament Hill, with a stop on Capitol Hill and then one in the Cortes Generales in Madrid. The message is the same everywhere, a plaintive plea to save his country, delivered to political leaders whose ardour is strong but whose contributions have been severely limited.
The awkwardness on both sides of Wednesday’s broadcast was palpable.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, stood, applauding slowly. Not far from her, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, her Republican bête noire, did the same.
It was Mr. Zelensky’s words describing “a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values” that moved them. But it was the video he showed – of buildings and lives destroyed, of soldiers and children dying – that got them. He had pressed an emotional nuclear button.
It was a moment unlike any other, when tragedy and irony mixed in an immensely uncomfortable brew.
Mr. Zelensky spoke to the lineal descendants of the one-time colonists’ Second Continental Congress, which in the 18th century sought aid from abroad in its own fight for freedom. The embattled Ukrainian President spoke to the very lawmakers who impeached president Donald Trump for trying to blackmail Mr. Zelensky to launch an investigation of Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
“I would like you to do us a favour,” Mr. Trump said in an infamous July 25, 2019, telephone call.
On Wednesday, Mr. Zelensky asked for more than a favour.
His plea was for more aid, more sanctions and the no-fly zone over Ukraine that NATO and Mr. Biden have refused to enforce.
“Is this too much to ask for?” he said.
Speeches by world leaders in the Capitol have become unremarkable in the postwar years. Americans remember that Winston Churchill delivered one, and Nelson Mandela also, but have largely forgotten that dozens of others, including Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, have done so as well. Customarily these speeches are a courtesy offered to a visiting luminary. Never has a figure facing his own demise offered a speech remotely like the one Mr. Zelensky delivered.
It had the passion of Daniel Webster pleading for the Union as the early winds of secession swept through Congress in 1830 (“Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”); the urgency of Franklin Roosevelt taking a country into war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (“a date which will live in infamy”); and the righteousness of Margaret Chase Smith confronting McCarthyism in 1950 (“a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear”).
Like any performer – and he was an accomplished one before he became a political leader – Mr. Zelensky read the room. In London, he paraphrased Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, and in Ottawa he asked members of Parliament to imagine a blockade of Vancouver and an attack on the CN Tower. In Washington he spoke of Pearl Harbor and the 2001 terrorist attacks and made reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was an extraordinary moment in an institution that has seen many transformational ones. The irresistible but haunting question is whether Mr. Zelensky’s remarks changed anything.
It is unlikely they did. No speech on Capitol Hill since Lyndon Johnson’s in favour of voting rights for Black citizens – a 1965 oration in which a Southern president employed the phrase “we shall overcome,” from the civil-rights protest anthem, a gesture that brought Dr. King to tears – has changed minds in Congress.
And yet the Zelensky speech affirmed the sentiment Ms. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed when they invited him to speak. “Congress, our country and the world are in awe of the people of Ukraine, who have shown extraordinary courage, resilience and determination in the face of Russia’s unprovoked, vicious and illegal war,” they said.
They may be even more in awe now, having witnessed what one of their predecessors on Capitol Hill, Senator John F. Kennedy, described in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book as a profile in courage. He looked backward to U.S. history and perhaps forward to this moment in world history and wrote, “The stories of past courage … can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul.”
On Capitol Hill, souls were being searched, along with the search for answers to the myriad questions posed at this frightful hour. “I call for you to do more,” Mr. Zelensky said. The lawmakers cheered. But they had no answers.
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