Nothing moves me more than the story of this country.
It is the story of liberty, of freedom, of the rights of man. It is the story defined by a long line of underdog rebels, stretching from the Boston Tea Party to the Underground Railroad to the Freedom Riders. In all of these accounts, we find people who contributed in their own times to the idea that all men are created equal. This is the American tradition, the best and truest expression of our national character. No other national history is so typified by a sense of basic decency. It is about what is good, what is right, and what is true.
Yet, even in light of my honest passion for our country’s story, I also acknowledge to a certain extent that each chapter in our history inspires a certain competition between feelings of pride and outrage. While we are the nation of the Emancipation Proclamation, Manifest Destiny, and D-Day, we are also the nation of the Peculiar Institution, the Trail of Tears, and internment camps. It seems that often the greatest testaments to the American spirit seem to exist alongside the very things that by definition contradict our founding principles and national purpose.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the roles of pride and outrage as part of the American identity. And to be even more specific, I’ve been thinking about my own senses of pride and outrage as an American. While I have known and continue to feel tremendous pride for my country, and always will, over the past four years I have grown increasingly frustrated with the direction of our country. I think of the long arc of our national story, with all of its black spots and moments of triumph, and I wonder how exactly the America of today aligns with that tradition. And I wonder how the chapter we are living through now will ultimately honor the history of this country that I cherish so much.
I remember the words of George W. Bush when he campaigned for president in 2000: “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll [other nations] resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. Our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble. And yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. So I don’t think they ought to look at us in any way other than what we are. We’re a freedom-loving nation and if we’re an arrogant nation they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation they’ll respect us.” Even now, when I read his words they seem good, right, and true. It honestly breaks my heart to have seen President Bush veer so dangerously far from his campaign positions seven years ago.
The fact is that the Bush administration has been an ever-escalating series of mistakes, abuses, and embarrassments.
Abu Ghraib. Valerie Plame. Domestic wire-tapping. Suspension of Habeas Corpus. Guantanamo Bay. Hurricane Katrina. Scooter Libby. The nomination of Harriet Meyers. The resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. The recent resignation of Paul Wolfowitz. The firing of U.S. Attorneys. The testimony of Alberto Gonzalez. 3422 American soldiers killed. Mission Accomplished.
These are the defining moments of the Bush Era. These are the snapshots of America today. This is the foundation on which we are building our future in this country. And not only do I think these things are not good, not right, not true; I believe they are disgraceful, offensive, and immoral. These things, by definition, contradict our founding principles and national purpose.
And I am left outraged. These things deprive me of my national pride.
I desperately want a way to channel that outrage into optimism. I want to honor that long history of underdog rebels who have defended the rights of man. I want to believe that this current chapter in our national story can yet inspire a sense of pride.
It is in that frame of mind that I respond with such enthusiasm over Barack Obama. When he says “This President may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free world has remained open” I feel that there is an answer to my outrage. When he says “It is time to show the world that America is still the last, best hope of Earth” I feel proud.
I feel proud because Obama echoes not only Lincoln’s words, but also his capacity for reason and leadership. Just as Lincoln understood the significance of his times, Obama also understands the magnitude of this moment in our national history. He understands that we as a country will be judged by our response to the crescendo of failure in the Bush years. He understands the demands and the difficulties of such a response. But perhaps most importantly, most inspiringly, he understands what Lincoln did: that by our response “we shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of Earth.”