Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To my grandchildren--yes we can!

To my Texas grandchildren, Katie, Susan, and Christopher--

Tuesday night I watched the election returns with a group of friends including an 11-year-old boy. He was well informed and articulate, and I enjoyed hearing his perceptive comments as the results poured in. At ten o'clock, when Mr Obama's electoral tally passed the necessary 270, I wished you were in the room too. I would have enjoyed spending that historic moment with you.

I couldn't help thinking back to the presidential election of 1960, when I was a 12-year-old eighth-grader.

John F. Kennedy
I was passionately interested in that presidential campaign. The contenders were John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, and Richard M. Nixon, a lapsed Quaker. Many Protestants were terrified. Norman Vincent Peale, an extremely prominent author and minister, had written that if a Catholic became president, American culture and freedom of speech would be at risk. I believed the fearmongers, and when I awoke the day after the election to learn that Kennedy had won (it took a long time to count all those paper ballots), I was scared.

I don't know how you feel about the election of 2008. I know how Texas voted, so I am guessing that you know people who aren't too happy about the results. Some are even afraid. Here are some wise and calming words from Michael Gerson, speechwriter to President George W. Bush for several years, about why all of us can be proud to call Barack Obama "Mr President":
This presidency in particular should be a source of pride even for those who do not share its priorities. An African American will take the oath of office blocks from where slaves were once housed in pens and sold for profit. He will sleep in a house built in part by slave labor, near the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with firm hand. He will host dinners where Teddy Roosevelt in 1901 entertained the first African American to be a formal dinner guest in the White House; command a military that was not officially integrated until 1948. Every event, every act, will complete a cycle of history. It will be the most dramatic possible demonstration that the promise of America -- so long deferred -- is not a lie.

New energy
The election of 2008 was historic, and its importance goes far beyond Mr Obama's race. Something is happening in America that I haven't seen since the 1960s. Record numbers of young people are getting involved in public life. Once again, people are thinking we can make a difference in race relations, poverty, world peace, health ("Yes we can!"). There's a kind of positive energy going around that may even reach out and embrace people who didn't originally want Mr Obama to win. People's opinions may change between now and the inauguration.

During the two months between John F. Kennedy's election and his inauguration in 1960, my opinion changed. For one thing, I really liked his wife, Jacqueline, who was only 31 years old and breathtakingly beautiful. For another, I began to believe that the U.S. Constitution was safe with Mr Kennedy even though he was Catholic, and I was inspired by what he was saying about peace, poverty, human rights, and racial equality. And then I especially liked what he said toward the end of his inaugural address:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
Selfish decades
Forty-eight years passed between the elections of Mr Kennedy and Mr Obama. We Boomer kids grew up and went to college and went to work and had families. We lost our idealism. Some of us got cynical. After the Vietnam War and the Nixon years, we concluded that government couldn't be trusted. After various scandals in businesses and churches, we didn't want to trust those institutions either.

Some of us decided it was more important to ask what our country, or our business, or our church, or our own God-given talents could do for us, never mind the other guy. The 1970s became known as the "me decade," as "the belief that hard work, self-denial and moral rectitude were their own rewards gave way to a notion ... that the self and the realization of its full potential were all-important pursuits" (Time, August 3, 1981).

It only got worse in the 80s, sometimes called the "greed decade." Americans spent lots of money and paid less taxes, and the national debt tripled. During the 1990s and beyond, people continued to buy more and more stuff, going deeply into debt when they ran out of money. They tore down perfectly good houses and built McMansions. Even average houses more than doubled in size, though families got smaller.

Many people practically stopped saving money. The national savings rate fell from around 10% in the 1960s to 2 or 3%--and in 2005 it even went negative, meaning that people had more debts than savings. Sacrifice, deferred gratification, budgeting--these words nearly dropped out of the national vocabulary. Even after the attack on the World Trade Center in 1991, our president did not ask us to sacrifice. To the contrary, he advised us to go to Disney World.

We forgot

We seemed to have forgotten the inspiring words of President Kennedy's inaugural address. He told us that liberty requires sacrifice:
We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
He warned us that our task would be enormous:
[We are called to] struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
He said that we had to take care of the poor as well as the rich:
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
He predicted that significant change would require many years of hard work:
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
And he challenged us to get involved in the struggle, to work to create the kind of world we want to live in:
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
We listened, nodded, and then went about our own self-absorbed business.

Another chance

The theme of Mr Obama's inauguration will be "A New Birth of Freedom," words taken from President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Lincoln did not see freedom as a gift, but rather as "a great task." President-elect Obama agrees with Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy: these are difficult times, and a lot of hard work lies ahead of us.

Tuesday night I thought of John F. Kennedy as Barack Obama spoke to 240,000 supporters in Chicago's Grant Park and the nation on TV. Mr Obama, like Mr Kennedy, told us that liberty requires sacrifice:
It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.
He warned us that our task will be enormous:
You understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
He said that we have to take care of the poor as well as the rich:
Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers.
He predicted that significant change will require many years of hard work:
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
And he challenged us to get involved in the struggle, to work to create the kind of world we want to live in:
Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other. . . . And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.
Yes we can!
The people in Grant Park shouted back, "Yes we can!"

The big question is, Will we?

We Boomers who were excited adolescents in 1960 had the same opportunity you kids have today. We too had an enormous task, and we too had the choice to sacrifice, to struggle, and to work hard and persistently to make the world a better place.

Some of us did just that. Too many of us, alas, chose to be selfish instead. In spite of President Kennedy's challenge, too many of us kept on asking what our country could do for us, not what we could do for our country.

I hope you and your friends get excited about our energetic new president-elect. But whatever your political persuasion, I hope you'll ask--now and all through your lives--what you personally can do for your country, your family, your community, your church, and your world.

I'm ashamed of what my generation has given yours to work with, but most of us aren't dead yet. Maybe we still have time to clean up our act. Maybe we can now turn into wise elders. Your generation, though, has an opportunity to set us a shining example.

If all of us together--Boomers, and your parents' generation, and you who will be running the country in 2040--commit to sacrifice and struggle on behalf of others, then Abraham Lincoln's words will be fulfilled. Then Barack Obama's inaugural theme will come true. Then, and only then,
this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and ... government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Yes we can!

2 comments:

Molly said...

I hope you're correct that this represents a new sense of empowerment for the American people. I'm still cynical:) By the way, you might want to look at that Bush quote on Disney World in context. In this case, he wasn't talking solely about stimulating the economy (though he was concerned about the airline industry) but refusing to allow ourselves to be overcome by FEAR - something you would seem to support from the rest of your comments:) This is also supported in his first speech after the attacks - a discussion of fear and victory.

LaVonne Neff said...

I'm cynical too, Molly. I'm not sure we the people will ever accept the challenge. But I'm not cynical about the ideals being expressed. As for the Disney World quote, what you say is right, as far as it goes. Like what Mr Bush said. It was fine for him to tell us not to fear. It was sadly lacking when he didn't go on to suggest we might need to sacrifice.