2018 has seen a relentless attack against vital and valued American institutions and principles: the FBI; Department of Justice; the rule of law; and the greatest assault on truth in recent history.
Who would have imagined that most of it would come from a U.S. president? His most loyal defender, Rudy Giuliani, summed it up when he said, “Truth isn’t truth.” (This, by a former U.S. attorney.)
This commentary originally appeared December 28, 2009. Sadly, it’s more relevant than ever. With only a few changes, it remains largely intact.
In 1940 journalist Edward R. Murrow stood in a church in England while the country endured German bombers night after night. Inside the church was a crudely written sign which read, “If your knees knock, kneel on them.”
I don’t know about you, but my knees have been knocking a lot over the last several months. Within the last year, the atmosphere of the country has become thick with the stench of corruption, lies, disinformation, and hate speech. The last two being the most unsettling.
While the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 62 percent believe that President Trump is “lying about Russia,” 34 percent believe a man who, by all evidence, is pathologically incapable of telling the truth. Congress doesn’t fare any better with a job disapproval rating sitting at the same number.
Clearly, the country is fed up with a Washington consumed more by partisanship than the business of the people. However, between the party-bickering and the blustering pundits, too many Americans have allowed cynicism to replace hope and fear to overtake reason. If ever we need those two qualities – hope and reason – it is now. If ever we needed to believe in the best we can be, it is now.
The spirit of America, expressed in its people and its principles, has carried us through everything from our first American crisis to a Great Depression, from 9/11 to the wild fires that charred almost 2 million acres in California. During those times, Americans have worked to overcome whatever challenges they faced.
I believe in hope, but we need something more.
We need a new model of citizenship, one that not only recognizes a shared purpose, but also a shared responsibility. America’s moral leadership may rest with the office of the presidency, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, but its moral responsibility rests with the American people themselves.
“We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity,” Roosevelt told an anxious nation in 1933, “with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values….”
Americans need to return to those values in a way where individuals come to the table respecting another’s right to their point of view, even if they disagree with that view; we need to come together with a responsibility to share the burdens of tough times as well as the fruit of the good.
We can debate how we get there, but without the infrastructure of respect, fairness, loyalty to principle, and above all, facts and honesty, we can never achieve our long term goal of being the best that we can be. This isn’t a Republican issue or a Democratic issue; this is a fundamental, ethical issue.
In his farewell address, President Eisenhower warned that we “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”
Three decades later, Senator Ted Kennedy spoke, not only, of his own failings but reminded his audience that, “Individual faults and fragilities are no excuse to give in, and no exemption from the common obligation to give of ourselves. Today, more than ever before, I believe that each of us as individuals must not only struggle to make a better world, but to make ourselves better, too….”
These may be the times that try our souls, as Thomas Paine so eloquently affirmed during that first American Crisis, but we’ve gone from fear to faith countless times, and we can return to that faith again if we remember who we are and what we stand for. Integrity, trust and confidence: that’s what Americans want. That’s what we need, and that’s what we can achieve again.