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The Fierce Urgency of Reflection

September 12, 2008

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. — The rolling hills and orchards of Southern Pennsylvania are especially lush this year. Farmers’ road-side stands burst with some of the late summer’s most succulent picks. The still, heavy air and the rattle of cicadas and occasional bees add a sense of timeless tranquility. At night there is a fresh sharp snap of cooler air, hinting at the change of season still to come.

Amid the neat stone farmhouses and open fields of soy beans and corn, one must remind oneself that the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest and most significant battles of the Civil War. It was the turning point of a conflict that split our nation in two. Lee, Meade, and Pickett left their historical mark on this land. And just less than one hundred years later, Eisenhower chose this place as his home and brought many visitors to his farm, including Khrushchev, de Gaulle, Nehru and Montgomery.

I grew up here. It is where I go for reflection.

Engaging one’s deepest self does not come easily these days. Tethered to cell phones and Blackberries, we lurch from one demand to another with scarcely a moment to think. Our impulses are reactive, not considered. They are short-term, rather than based on strategic goals or on building the future. This era of immediate gratification, as well as the twenty-four hour news cycle and the quarterly earnings report, have prompted us to keep our heads down with barely a glance at the horizon. We have become a nation of tacticians, with few strategists worthy of the name. The consequences of this are captured in the old adage: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Given our national historical ignorance– and our refusal to look ahead– we risk becoming a nation of lost Hansel and Gretels with no clear way back after embarking on our dangerous, yet directionless journey.

Though little has been physically altered in Gettysburg since my grandparents first came to this small historic hamlet in 1917 and again in the 1950s, today prevailing attitudes have changed a great deal, as they have across the country. The can-do spirit of ordinary Americans has been shaken by unease and worry about the future. Our citizens are losing their homes in record numbers and a credit crunch threatens our institutions and the economy as a whole. Unemployment is rising, and those who do have jobs can barely afford to drive to work. If that’s not enough, our health care system leaves most Americans one accident or illness away from financial catastrophe. Our way of life seems jeopardized from within.

Add to this, we have many intractable problems overseas, including a new dangerous situation in the Caucasus. Georgia’s provocation over a disputed land, and Russia’s brutal response, could have been avoided if the Bush administration and people like Senator John McCain, who are close to the Georgian president, had managed this long-standing problem before it became a crisis.

In the end, the Georgians lost their military and now find themselves in an untenable position. The Russians lost considerable standing in the world because of their overreaction. And the United States suffered a strategic set back. It was known at the outset that we did not have a viable military option, and events painfully demonstrated that there was nothing the US could really do to protect the former Soviet republic. At the same time, this debacle cost us the ability to cooperate with Russia on issues that directly relate to our own national security: energy, Iran, terrorism, and securing nuclear materials. While the confrontation has eased a bit in the last few weeks, it is still worth noting that the situation could have become perilously dangerous. United States and Russia are still on nuclear “hair-trigger alert”—with only minutes to decide before launching nuclear Armageddon “on warning.” Over the longer haul, the prospect of “de-alerting” these existentially dangerous weapons, and thus reducing the potential for a catastrophic accident, is now close to zero because of these events.

On the home front our election campaign has reached an all time low. Trivialization of the issues has overtaken everything. Since the emergence of the GOP Vice Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, the broadcast media has profited from a ratings bonanza, but has been unable to provide the Americans with adequate coverage of her as a candidate, except for the details of her family life, her early years as a beauty queen, and the thin contours of her career as a public servant. In large measure, they have allowed themselves to be cowed by accusations of sexism from the McCain campaign.

Weeks after the Palin choice, however, the serious media is finally pushing back and commenting on the candidate’s unprecedented inaccessibility and arguing that we should know more about the views of this candidate who could find herself “a heartbeat away from the Presidency.” Her debut interview with Charlie Gibson—on September 11—revealed a worrisome lack of familiarity with some of the most fundamental aspects of foreign policy. While Palin understood a Ukraine (or a Georgia) in NATO would require the alliance’s commitment to defend them against attack, her enthusiasm for taking this step—including starting a war with Russia—reveals little acknowledgment of Russia’s nuclear capability. Russia is the only country on earth that can blow the United States off the face of the earth– while taking much of the rest of the world with us.

It is no surprise that the McCain campaign has kept Governor Palin under wraps and plans to keep her at the Senator’s side for most of the weeks going into the election. Their use of Palin, as a symbol, is every bit as distasteful as the campaign practices they have aggressively deployed against McCain’s rival, Barack Obama. Despite the Arizona Senator’s original commitment to elevate the electoral process, McCain has approved campaign ads that smear Obama and twist his record –all efforts to play into our nation’s most unfortunate stereotypes. The target is one of Obama’s most compelling assets—his biographical narrative. Hints that “he is really not one of us” are consistently implied. (This reminds me of a terrible expression WASP snobs used to whisper to one another when meeting someone they thought socially or racially inferior: “Not One of Us, Dear,” they’d say, or “NOOUD” for short.)

This, of course, is dead wrong. Barack Obama is not only one of us, he is us. In a way, he is the embodiment of us as a nation, which is a melting pot of multi-racial and multi-ethnic lines. Any attempt to make Obama seem a little too “exotic,” a little too “elite” or “foreign” is, in effect, not only “Swift boating” the Democratic candidate, but “Swift boating” the very idea and promise of America.

One understands the tactics clearly—and what is behind it. Americans are led to believe that relating to a candidate is more critical than the issues themselves. This may have been an approach we could afford in past elections—but not today.

Despite my hopes, the election has turned into a circus and those we are counting on have let us down. There may be Democrats who are frustrated by Barack Obama’s cool, calm and collected approach to recent events—(I personally don’t want my President to be prone to panic…). But those of us who were once supporters of Senator McCain find it disturbing, but telling, that on the two major issues he’s faced in the last two months, both demonstrated his impulsive nature. The first was the impetuous role he played during the crisis in the Caucasus, responding to events as if he had already been sworn in as President. And the second was the slap dash way he chose a running mate with no national or foreign policy experience. If he was truly the maverick he claims to be, he could have chosen instead an experienced party moderate. But with the Palin choice, John McCain has shown us where he wants to take the Republican Party in the future—farther to the right. Given his age and his history of illness, it also reflects a disregard for his succession should he be elected as President.

Not far from where I write this– and where I penned “Reflections of Leaving the Republican Party” and my address to the Democratic Convention– my siblings and I often spent carefree summer evenings. We played hide and seek and caught fireflies in jam jars, before the dusk grew thick and the adults called us inside. The sound of crickets tickled the nighttime quiet and there was always a sense of exhaustion and peace when we finally came indoors. We felt safe, and happy and very lucky to be Americans.

I remember vividly that sense we had of security, even though the Cold War raged around us. We felt the country was in good hands and that those in power were thinking about us, and our futures, which were unfolding with each long lazy summer day. Such memories stand in sharp relief to today’s ugly and undignified electoral free for all.

As this campaign draws to a close, I wonder if we busy Americans will take the time, before each of us pulls the lever, to reflect on where this country is headed and what kind of values we really want to pass on as our legacy? Will our thoughts, and ultimately our choice, be a credit to our children and theirs?

In the years ahead will we manage to provide our children and grandchildren that sense of comfort and security we felt as kids? Will the futures we are crafting for them assure their chance to prosper in an ever-competitive global marketplace? Will we bequeath them a country that values genuine accomplishment and excellence; a country that stands above others as a beacon of tolerance and mutual respect? Or will we fail them and ourselves in this process, as we choose political expediency over sacrifice and stewardship?

I reflect on this as I drive along the back roads of town near my grandparents’ farm—on famous ridges, where statues remind us of what took place here. I say to myself: the American people deserve more; our democracy is better than what we have seen this election. Our country urgently needs, again, a sense of national purpose and a strategy for the future.

“Putting America First” should be a deliberate act of will and courage– not a hollow or cynical campaign slogan.


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