What is it about presidential politics that brings out the worst in America and Americans?
On the evening of May 8, 1964, that question was about the furthest thing from my seven-year-old mind. After bidding farewell to family and friends at the airport in Montevideo, Uruguay, your grandma and grandpa and your aunt Viv and I walked out onto a small, windy tarmac and boarded a Pan Am propeller plane to Sao Paulo, Brazil where we’d connect to the much larger jet that would take us to our new life in the United States of America. I can’t wait to show you pictures from that night. They look a bit like stills from the movie Casablanca.
It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt at that moment. From the expression on my face in some of the pictures, it appears that I was pretty scared, and that even at age seven I probably understood that we were embarking towards an uncertain future. I do know that like many immigrants before us, we held the belief that our destination was great and that opportunity would abound once we got there.
Over the years I’ve never stopped believing in the greatness of our country or in the American Dream. As a nation we have consistently shown the depth of our national character. We have repeatedly risen to the challenge and have sacrificed, in sweat and in blood, so that future generations could have a better life. Except during the presidential election cycle. Then all hell breaks loose.
During the past few months, I have watched with amusement and horror as one presidential hopeful after another has said and done things on the national stage that have made me fearful for the future of this country.
By way of background for example, it has been well documented that while then-congressman Newt Gingrich was ranting about family values and leading the charge to impeach President Clinton for the Paula Jones affair, he himself was cheating on his first wife, ultimately asking her for a divorce while she lay in a hospital fighting cancer.
The scoundrel mistress of his first marriage became the victim spouse of his second marriage when Gingrich in turn cheated on her with a staffer twenty-five years his junior. I’m not suggesting that Mr. Gingrich has cheated on his current wife. I’m just saying that if I were her I might keep a private investigator on retainer and a packed travel bag nearby.
When all this was raised by the press as he began his current run for the presidency, Mr. Gingrich responded that his infidelities had been partially caused by “how passionately I felt about this country” (you can’t make this stuff up). He also scolded the press, saying that to bring up these issues in a presidential campaign was “close to despicable”.
During Michelle Bachmann’s presidential run, the Minnesota congresswoman claimed that while slavery was not “perfect”, African-Americans may well have been better off as slaves because “at least their children got to grow up in two parent households”. I imagine it wasn’t always clear who the two parents were because history records that among other things, the masters were apparently raping the slaves with some regularity.
Rick Santorum, the ex-senator from Pennsylvania, gained momentum in his presidential bid by asserting that “having homosexual sex was one step above having sex with a dog or other animal”. For good measure, he added that “the emotions of female soldiers would compromise the fulfilling of their combat duty”.
These and other similar statements by the current crop of presidential candidates are so patently absurd that it’s hard to fathom intelligent people like Bachmann and Santorum actually believe what they are saying. It seems far more likely that these insidious statements are epithets designed to incite racist, homophobic and misogynistic feelings in their core constituency. Yet even so. Really?
It isn’t an issue of left versus right. I have plenty of friends on both sides of the political aisle who speak eloquently on why they are correct on the issues. If they can articulate a vision without resorting to cynicism and hate-mongering, why can’t the candidates who aspire to the highest office in the land? Are they actually being stumped by TMZ and the 24 hour news cycle?
It all makes me wonder, my sweet daughter. We have never been at a more critical juncture in our history. Can it be that at the very moment when we most need a real national leader, we can’t find one? Can it be that with our educational and health care system in shambles, with the middle class in danger of extinction and with our economy teetering on collapse, this crop of candidates is the very the best our country can muster? I shudder to think it.
We live in a world of sound bites, especially in politics. Yet when Ronald Reagan told us it was “morning in America” we got ready to face a new day. When Bill Clinton told us “there is nothing wrong with this country that cannot be fixed by what is right with this country” we rolled up our sleeves and set about the hard work of repair. When Barack Obama (certainly a better candidate than a president, at least so far) told us that “yes we can”, we believed that yes we could.
No doubt those sound bites were written by speechwriters and marketing gurus too. But at least those sound bites, and the people who used them, fed our positive national ethos. For me at least, those statements resonate with my long-standing and unshakeable belief that in these United States of America, a young immigrant boy from Montevideo, Uruguay can still realize the American Dream, and achieve just about anything he sets his mind to if he’s willing to work hard to do it.
The future lies in your hands, Mackenzie, and in those of the rest of your generation. Having been born in the USA you won’t feel the immigrant experience first hand, but I hope you never take the principles of our great nation for granted.
Even as I write you this letter, some family is boarding a plane in a faraway land on their way to a new life in the land of the free and the home of the brave. A journey not dissimilar from the one our family took some 48 years ago.
Let’s not disappoint them.
All my everlasting love,