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A Certain Conception of a Nation
Clinton, Bush, Obama: Of course, they are different from one another. But they share a great similarity too. They meet, I think, at a certain conception about the character of America itself. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and I have stumbled across the full range in my time. I recall sitting across the table from some leaders, unable to think of anything other than: my God, the poor people of that country. You get the dumb; the cynical; the tedious; the mildly unsuitable; the weird; the products of systems so mad and dysfunctional, you find yourself marveling that the leader is sentient, let alone capable. And frankly some weren't sentient. I remember asking rather unkindly when told of one leader's death, "How could they tell?"
Then there are the clever, wise and good ones, the ones you have to admire and like. And here's the thing: there are more of them than you would think.
But the real test of leadership amongst all the tests of policy, judgment, politics and ability is whether, in the final analysis, you put the country first; that ultimately you are prepared to put what you perceive to be the common good of the nation before your own political self. It is the supreme test. Very few leaders pass it. Each of these Presidents does and for a reason not connected simply to them.
Americans can be all that the rest of the world sometimes accuses them of: brash, loud, insular, obsessive and heavy-handed. But America is great for a reason. It is looked up to, despite all the criticism, for a reason. There is a nobility in the American character that has been developed over the centuries, derived in part, no doubt, from the frontier spirit, from the waves of migration that form the stock, from the circumstances of independence, from the Civil War, from a myriad of historical facts and coincidences. But it is there.
That nobility isn't about being nicer, better or more successful than anyone else. It is a feeling about the country. It is a devotion to the American ideal that at a certain point transcends class, race, religion or upbringing. That ideal is about values: freedom, the rule of law, democracy. It is also about the way you achieve: on merit, by your own efforts and hard work. But it is most of all that in striving for and protecting that ideal, you as an individual take second place to the interests of the nation as a whole. It is what makes the country determined to overcome its challenges. It is what makes its soldiers give their lives in sacrifice. It is what brings every variety of American, from the lowest to the highest, to their feet when "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played. Of course the ideal is not always met that is obvious. But it is always striven for.
The Need for American Confidence
The next years will test the American character. America won't be loved in this presidency any more than in previous ones. But America should have confidence. That ideal, which produces the optimism that generates the achievement, is worth all the striving. It is the most precious gift a nation can have. The world is changing. New powers are emerging. But this does not diminish the need for that American ideal. It reaffirms it, renews it, gives it added relevance. There is always one, more prosaic, test of a nation's position: Are people trying to get into it, or to get out of it? I think we know the answer to that in America's case, and that ideal is the reason.
A friend of mine whose parents were immigrants, Jews from Europe who came to America in search of safety, told me this story. His parents lived and worked in New York. They were not well off. His father died when he was young. His mother lived on, and in time my friend succeeded and became wealthy. He often used to offer his mother the chance to travel outside America. She never did. When eventually she died, they went back to recover the safety box where she kept her jewelry. They found there was another box. There was no key. So they had to drill it open. They wondered what precious jewel must be in it. They lifted the lid. There was wrapping and more wrapping and finally an envelope. Intrigued, they opened it. In the envelope were her U.S. citizenship papers. Nothing more. That was the jewel, more precious to her than any other possession. That was what she treasured most. So should America today.