I am finally able to put a name to my feelings about my country. I declare myself a pragmatic patriot.
I have always been pretty positive about the United States of America. The good and the terrible, things in transition, and things in stasis. We have sent people to the moon, and we have sent people to their deaths in pursuit of noble aspiration and misguided conquest. For every act of aggression, there are acts of generosity and resilience that define the best of what America can be.
Yet here we are in 2020. We watch astronauts go to space and come back to earth, live on television, while at the same time we are told it is too risky to vote by mail.
Here, in 2020, we witness brave Americans coming before us, testifying under oath to the terrible, illegal, and immoral acts of our most senior elected official and his cronies. Yet nothing changes, except that the truth-tellers lose their jobs, have their reputations brutalized by criminals and sycophants, while millions of fellow citizens cheer and jeer at their pillorying.
Some will argue that “it has always been this way.” Some posit, “this is nothing new, and it used to be worse.” I can’t remember when, in my lifetime, so many bonfires have been burning, using our most sacred and vital principles as fuel.
Tribalism has grown worse. Ugliness is exacerbated by conspiracy theory and amplified by a willingness – even eagerness – to make all manner of accusations against our neighbors. We seem to have abandoned education in favor of indoctrination.
Has the time passed for the dream that is America?
Our home is filled with books, many of them biographies of past American leaders: Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Washington. They serve as valuable resources and lessons on how we have faced crisis and triumphed over crushing odds. They also serve as a reminder that leaders aren’t always great, or perfect. The ones we remember, those who have shaped history, managed to find themselves when the world most needed them.
The table next to my bed has a small shelf on the bottom that holds a collection of books. Among them are three that tell a story: the past, the warning, the result.
The first, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, examines the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Goodwin details the major historical events faced by each of these American Presidents, and how their leadership and vision propelled the country and, arguably, the world forward towards a more just and moral state.
The second book, which paints a decidedly different picture of a man who would become an American President, is “Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History” by journalist Katy Tur. This recounting of her experience covering the 2016 Republican candidate demonstrates the rot and ugliness of the man who would eventually succeed in becoming the nation’s 45th President. Tur’s reporting shows a person with the exact opposite qualities and morality of the four men covered in Goodwin’s book.
The third book is “A Very Stable Genius” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, both veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who have covered American politics for years. Their effort chronicles the realities of an administration led by the candidate described by Tur. An administration headed by a person whose lack of leadership, morality and courage stands on the opposite pole from the men described by Goodwin.
I struggled to finish each of these books. Goodwin’s work, because it was painful to realize how far we have fallen from the standards these four Presidents set for leadership and moral courage. Tur’s, because I knew how it ended, and I did not want to be gut-punched again. And finally, the work of Rucker and Leonnig, for it exposes the realities we now suffer – the manifestation of all the warnings that did not matter to enough of us to avert this American nightmare.
Of all the sobering and frightening warnings about the potential end of our grand experiment in self-government, one that shook me deeply came from historian and author Jon Meacham.
Mr. Meacham has devoted his life to studying and chronicling the many roads that have taken America from feisty dreams to magnificent reality. As our leadership careens into chaos, destroying everything good and noble built over our very few centuries, Meacham would most often calmly assess it all and put it in the context of history.
This implacable, scholarly observer found himself at a crossroads. He had wondered, if he lived in a time and place of existential crisis, what he would do.
Mr. Meacham recognized it is no longer an academic exercise. Now is such a time. He spoke, not from his tomes but his heart. His words, while measured, revealed the depth of his conviction and the angst he felt as he spoke, not as a historian, but as a citizen, and said:
With our voices and our votes, let us now write the next chapter of the American story. One of hope, of love, of justice. If we do so, we might just save our country, and our souls.
His act of conviction gives me, not hope, but a sense that justice still matters, and good people will choose to take principled stands.
Our Better Angels
Many more historians, journalists, teachers, politicians, doctors, soldiers, religious leaders, and ordinary people here in America and around the world are raising their hands and speaking from their convictions. We need to listen.
I am not writing because I believe I am right. I am writing because I believe our current direction is horribly wrong. I know we can always be better. America must be better.
I am a pragmatic patriot.