FAREWELL TO THE AMERICAN HEARTH.
Senator Frank Lautenberg was the last surviving veteran of WWII to serve in our United States Congress. I mention this not only to honor him and his service to our country, but to lament the passing of something even greater — a binding experience of American commonality; a common cause around which to rally. Our American hearth.
Growing up in the 1960s, I remember reading about congressional activity with great interest at a time when, like now, so much was changing. Even though the issues were very controversial and debates very heated, there seemed to be an invisible line that these gentlemen statesmen (and they were all men) just did not cross. For the most part, they minded their manners and backed off when they knew they were losing, enabling cooperation and compromise in passing historic legislation and moving our nation forward. They were patriots before they were Republicans or Democrats. Sadly, loyalty to a political party now trumps loyalty to our fellow Americans.
Then Senator Obama spoke of our ever increasing political hostilities in his book, The Audacity of Hope, and suggested that one reason for the lack of civility was that there are fewer reminders of our past common greatness; such as WWII. In the 1950s and 60s, nearly every person serving in Congress had served in WWII. This immediate memory of brothers in arms against a common enemy made it easier to see those on the other side of the aisle, not as mortal enemies, but only temporary ones. The debater on the floor was also a fellow veteran, an ally in defeating fascism and saving our Republic.
In the 1960s there was the additional thrill of the space program and the race to the moon. I remember how truly out of this world it all seemed. We were at the top of our game, at the top of the world. We had just saved the world from a brutal dictatorship, and went on to plant an American flag on the moon. Here again, we were united against a common enemy and beat the Soviets to the moon. We were Americans, and we were great!
So, what happened? While it is true that there is a greater diversity of all kinds in our current congress — diversity of backgrounds, ethnicities and ideas — this diversity demonstrates a greater commitment to our founding principles, and should enhance our sense of patriotism. The fact that there are now more women in congress has proven to be a real benefit, as they are the ones most engaged at present in reaching across the aisle to the other party.
While accommodating new voices and ideas requires adjustments, we have been electing a more diverse congress for decades now, so this alone cannot be a major culprit in creating the discord we have now. The last truly unifying event that we experienced together as a nation was 9/11. American flags were everywhere, people were treating one another with kindness and compassion, and we all felt the enormous pain of our great loss. It is unfortunate that this good feeling and sense of commonality was too short-lived due to the controversial manner in which we invaded Iraq. Before long, the compassion we shared with one another and that the world lavished upon us after the attack, had turned into 1960s-style protests against the war. Even natural disasters are now sources of controversy, it seems. Didn’t we all used to agree about disaster relief?
So, how do we get it back? Is it going to take another plane flying into a building? A dirty bomb? Nuclear holocaust? The end of the world? Is it only in the face of terror that we can unite and call one another sister and brother? Do we need a new common enemy? If so, what or who? Our enemies are not as easily identifiable as they used to be. How do we get our American Mojo back?
This may sound like a lame suggestion, but how about rejoicing in our greatness, past and future? Do we need a greater reason to see one another as patriots than just having the honor of calling ourselves and one another American? I know that every American has their own idea of what patriotism is. Even though I often abhor the comments I hear, I am really happy that people care enough to want in on the discussion; the ongoing discussion of what it means to be American. It is sad to me that more people don’t participate in our great and ongoing American experiment.
I really like the word ‘hearth.’ For me, it brings a sense of a gathering around, of family, of commonality. Where is our American hearth? I hope we don’t need to be invaded from outer space in order to find it again. I miss it. I think we all do, and that is why we will all miss Frank Lautenberg.
Having retired from the practice of law, Irene Daniel is now focused on a second career as a writer and activist. She is a second-generation Mexican-American, native Arizonan who transplanted to Los Angeles to attend the UCLA School of Law, and now calls LA home. She lives in Eagle Rock with her husband Ken and her black lab Maggie.