I might have to purchase an American flag and hang it on my porch.
I come from a family of patriots. Every July 4 my mother dressed my sisters and me in red, white and blue, complete with red, white and blue ribbons for our braids. We climbed Snake Hill Road in Long Island with other tri-colored patriots in the annual Fourth of July parade. We sang “America the Beautiful” and other America songs and waved small cloth flags, and in the summer of 1976 we collected Bicentennial quarters. We grew up outside Washington DC and every time a friend or relative came to visit we took them on tours of the Smithsonian, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Washington Monument and the American History Museum. I knew the stories of Paul Revere and Betsy Roth better than I knew the episodes of the Brady Bunch. My grandmother, a Democrat, could barely speak of her brother-in-law who had been an America Firster in the forties—not because he had been a Republican, but because he, in her view, had distorted the notion of patriotism into something resembling selfishness. My other grandparents were Republicans, and until 1980, my parents were independents, choosing their leaders based on trustworthiness, intelligence and experience.
Then Reagan showed up, and I don’t think anyone in my family has pulled the lever for a Republican since.
But I don’t want to write about the past twenty eight (!!) years of partisan politics. As much as I am an eager participant in the blood sport; as much as I enjoyed this morning’s Huffington Post expose of the rifts between the McCain and Palin camps (she thought South Africa was just the southern tip of the continent as opposed to a country unto itself! She couldn’t name the countries in NAFTA!), I mourn the America of my childhood, broken and disillusioned though it surely was to the adults who were living through Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, oil embargoes and the first wave of culture wars. Back then, there may have been rancor between Democrats and Republicans, but it wasn’t codified the way it seems now to be.
In July of 2004 I was sitting next to my fiancé, now husband at our friends Dar and Michael’s house in front of the Democratic National Convention. We watched a fresh young candidate from Illinois running for the senate stand up and address the people, urging us to put partisan politics aside because:
“We worship an “awesome God” in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”
I turned to Tom and said, “Why can’t we have him as our nominee?”
“Why can’t we have him as our president?” said Tom.
It seemed like such a ridiculous long shot. First of all, there was the name. I found myself wishing he would change it. There was no way, in my mind, that someone whose last name rhymed with—was one letter different from—our public enemy number one, and whose middle name was the same last name as our public enemy number two, could be elected chief dog catcher, let alone commander in chief. He wasn’t even yet a senator, and if he did get elected, he’d just be in the job a mere four years. Maybe he could run in 2012, or 2016. Hillary was a safer bet for sure.
I read his first book and discovered this was a man with a remarkable sense of himself, a balanced visionary (didn’t know such existed) who by the way could write like an angel. Then Iowa happened, and I was a goner. If a lily-white state like Iowa could believe in this guy, surely I could too. So I did what little I could given my pregnancy and motherhood of a toddler: made phone calls, sent money compulsively, saving the thank you post cards for my daughter, put bumper stickers on my car, argued with my in-laws and anyone else who couldn’t escape, and prayed to my awesome God. High-fived when he––we––won another primary. Became mentally ill from checking the polls every five minutes. Almost walked out of my church on Easter Sunday when our minister noted that Barack Obama was not going to be our real savior any more than Jesus Christ was—the real savior is and always has been ourselves (yes, I go to an unusual church, if you can call it that.)
Of course, the joke about that is that this is what Obama has been saying all along. The change is us, people, the change is each of us. And that is why I am in love with our country again, so in love that I might have to hang a flag, rightside up, off my porch. Because ever since I first voted in 1988 (for Jesse Jackson in the primary and Michael Dukakis in the general) I have thought that elections were big shams. Back in the 80s and 90s, only about 50% of the population at the most even voted—so no politician was really chosen by very much of the populace. And even though I could tick off issues where I agreed with my Democratic politicians, I never loved them. I never really thought of them as leaders. A leader is one who has a vision and through the power of example and inspiration compels others to follow him or her. That was never the case for me, even with Bill Clinton, whom I voted for strategically: to protect the supreme courts; because I knew he was intelligent and would make better decisions than Bush. But I never felt he had a vision I could be a part of, except the vision of a Democrat majority, which never materialized, even with a booming economy.
Then in 2000 and again in 2004, voter turnout increased significantly, and many more red states turned blue—but, well we all know how that turned out. Our guy won the popular vote but the whole thing hung on those hanging Florida chads. Our guy was up in all the polls, even the exit polls, but the whole thing hung on broken machines in Ohio. We had the most cynical administration in history systematically destroy our reputation in the world, our economy, our justice system, even our media (remember how the press couldn’t interview the Bushies unless they proclaimed fealty?) Karl Rove and the Dicks: Cheney and Armey, Donald Rumsfeld–– their very names like dull clubs on my skull. I seriously fantasized about a new nation composed of the northeast, the left coast and some choice blue cities like St. Louis, Boulder and Chapel Hill.
But what happened on Tuesday night changed all that. I, like all of you, saw America on the front yard of Chicago, weeping and cheering and taking their marching orders from our new leader; someone whom we chose, as Frank Rich said in the Sunday Times on Nov. 2, because “we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.” The real leader is ourselves. Democracy works. We cashed in that promissory note that all of us are created equal; that we each have a voice and a vote; that if we don’t like the government, we can change it, because the government is us: by the people, for the people. This is my country. Not since those July days in the 70s have I felt that that has been true. Since Reagan, I’ve always felt like a leftie oddball, a small nag shaking my tiny fist at the powers-that-be. But today, I feel powerful, and my guess is that you do too. Having felt the power of the people, the power of a good vision, my bet is that we are never going back to our disenfranchisement.
And, for the moment, I am done with partisan politics. May the goodwill that seems to be burbling up from every corner of the world seep into every corner of this great land of ours. May we lay down our swords and shields and be, as Obama calls us (as Jesus and every leader of every major religion calls us, as our own consciences call us) our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. May we rejoice together that our hopes and dreams and love overcame our fears on November 4, 2008. May God bless the United States of America, and may our country be a good, caring and righteous patch of green on this big blue planet.