Two Things Americans Can Do

Published: January 19, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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Heavy snow fell the night before the inauguration.

On Friday, January 20, 1961, I sat in my seventh grade homeroom class while the teacher rolled in a black and white television and announced that we would all be watching history take place today.  (Me, I always liked a good excuse to watch TV.)

What I was unprepared for was how quiet and absorbed everyone in the class was in watching John Fitzgerald Kennedy take the oath of office and then give one of the most memorable inaugural speeches in American history.

Times were perilous.

President Eisenhower severed relations with Communist Cuba, and everything was shrouded in a Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.

But on that cold, clear Friday in 1961 everything stopped for a singular moment.

People paid attention.  They were excited.  And they were unified behind the words of young president who offered “a peaceful revolution of hope… to convert our good words into good deeds…”  And reminded us to “Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”

He spoke of individual responsibility, service and loyalty.

Tomorrow, the country once again celebrates the inauguration of a new president.  And, for only the second time that I can remember, people are excited.  They’re paying attention.  And they will be looking to unify behind the words of hope from President-to-be Barack Obama.

The final piece in this series was originally titled, “Five Things Americans Need to Do.”  However, the more I reread my list, the more I realized that there really are only two important things Americans need to do, two things that are essential if we are ever to move from the uncertain times we find ourselves in to the better place we all want to be:

Check Your Cynicism at the Door – At this point in time, we don’t need gratuitous criticism, cynicism, or doubt.  We need hopeful optimism.

Sarcasm is fine for Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and others.  Humor keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, but it should never be used to undermine the ideals of our country and the fine people who work hard to make a real difference.  Republican, Democrat, Independent, Black, Latino, Catholic, Muslim, young, old… we are Americans first and we’re all in this together.

At such a critical time in our nation’s history, we need to accept and support the current leadership in Washington or get out of the way.

It’s easy to criticize.  It’s more difficult to read, study and put forth your own thinking.  But that’s exactly what Mr. Obama has asked all of us on his transition team’s web site,  “Your stories and your ideas,” the site asks, “can help change the future of the country.  When we come together around a common purpose, great things are possible.”

In the thousands of responses to the Capps Center’s post-election poll, people said they want more civility and decency.  So, let’s practice that civility ourselves.

Faith and Patience – “With this faith,” Dr. King reminded us from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.  With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

It took us a long time to get in the mess we find ourselves in and change won’t happen overnight.  “If patience is worth anything,” Gandhi said, “it must endure to the end of time.  And a living faith will last in the midst of the blackest storm.”

Rereading Kennedy’s inaugural address, I was struck by the similarities his words have to our own times; powerful, relevant words that can be used to rally and renew our faith in our elected leaders.

“The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.

“United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do – for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

“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.”


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