Being a jaded, cynical newspaperman in 21st Century America often harrows the soul. We witness the beast, in all of its manifestations, zoomed-in on graphic detail, often armed only with a reporter’s notebook, a pen, and a digital recorder. These tools, while perfectly suitable for the recording of history, don’t leverage much power against the darker forces at work in civilization.
While the use of a Macbook and a website content management system give voice to frustration, the fractiousness of our politics may often convince one it’s just so much screaming into the void. The void, by definition, is empty – empty thought, empty hate, empty knee-jerk divisiveness, callousness, selfishness, willful ignorance of the problems facing others.
The void swallows high-mindedness of goals and generosity of spirit. The void renders dark and incomprehensible the better angels of our nature, the better history of our collective story, the better of our intentions toward our fellow countrymen and travelers on what Carl Sagan called this pale blue dot.
Last night, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, President Barack Obama, in his singular way, once again reminded us. The Democratic Party currently boasts the three best orators I’ve seen in my time on the dot: former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, but President Obama has always stood a notch above the rest.
I remember very clearly the day I was first stunned into silence by the power of his oratory. It was Dec. 27, 2007. It was a time in American history where I again felt hopeless, cynical, jaded. The eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency had sapped me with a deep loneliness, a grating awareness of being out-of-step with the priorities of my country, a terrible frustration that I seemed powerless to do anything about it.
I lived in Alexandria, Virginia, at the time, just outside the beltway in Washington, D.C. I worked out of the Watergate complex in Foggy Bottom for the National Journal’s The Hotline. I was tapped directly into the every day of the primary campaign.
And there was this candidate for president – this junior U.S. Senator from Illinois who nailed his 2004 DNC address and won the whispers of the chattering class that his would be the fresh new face of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton was still the odds-on favorite to be the 2008 Democratic nominee, but this upstart was sending a message of renewed optimism.
And on a Thursday afternoon in Des Moines, Iowa, he made his case:
I’ve spoken to Americans in every corner of the state, patriots all, who wonder why we have allowed our standing in the world to decline so badly, so quickly. They know this has not made us safer. They know that we must never negotiate out of fear, but that we must never fear to negotiate with our enemies as well as our friends. They are ashamed of Abu Graib and Guantanamo and warrantless wiretaps and ambiguity on torture. They love their country and want its cherished values and ideals restored.
It is precisely because you’ve experience these frustrations, and seen the cost of inaction in your own lives, that you understand why we can’t afford to settle for the same old politics. You know that we can’t afford to allow the insurance lobbyists to kill health care reform one more time, and the oil lobbyists to keep us addicted to fossil fuels because no one stood up and took their power away when they had the chance.
You know that we can’t afford four more years of the same divisive food fight in Washington that’s about scoring political points instead of solving problems; that’s about tearing your opponents down instead of lifting this country up.
Over eight years later, 20 million more Americans have healthcare and nobody may be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions. The Obama Administration has set record levels of investment in renewable and sustainable energy. Torture is no longer the official policy of the United States of America. But the food fight in Washington, the politics of fear and division both still rage.
Later in the speech, candidate Obama reminded us of the power of hope and the tremendous obstacles we can overcome when we aspire to what’s best in our nature instead of what’s worst.
I know that hope has been the guiding force behind the most improbable changes this country has ever made. In the face of tyranny, it’s what led a band of colonists to rise up against an Empire. In the face of slavery, it’s what fueled the resistance of the slave and the abolitionist, and what allowed a President to chart a treacherous course to ensure that the nation would not continue half slave and half free.
In the face of war and Depression, it’s what led the greatest of generations to free a continent and heal a nation. In the face of oppression, it’s what led young men and women to sit at lunch counters and brave fire hoses and march through the streets of Selma and Montgomery for freedom’s cause. That’s the power of hope – to imagine, and then work for, what had seemed impossible before. That’s the change we seek.
A better future is within our reach, he said.
That’s what hope is – that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better is waiting for us around the corner. But only if we’re willing to work for it and fight for it. To shed our fears and our doubts and our cynicism. To glory in the task before us of remaking this country block by block, precinct by precinct, county by county, state by state.
There is a moment in the life of every generation when, if we are to make our mark on history, this spirit must break through. This is the moment. This is our time.
If the, “Our moment is now,” speech can be seen as the first bookend to the presidency of Barack Obama, his speech Wednesday evening in Philadelphia may do well to be the other side. And he acknowledged – despite the progress we’ve made against unprecedentedly obstinate and intransigent opposition – much work remains.
Tonight, I’m here to tell you that, yes, we’ve still got more work to do. More work to do for every American still in need of a good job or a raise, paid leave or a decent retirement; for every child who needs a sturdier ladder out of poverty or a world-class education; for everyone who has not yet felt the progress of these past seven and a half years.
We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer—our homeland more secure, our world more peaceful and sustainable for the next generation. We’re not done perfecting our union, or living up to our founding creed that all of us are created equal; all of us are free in the eyes of God.
He reminded us that we are always stronger united, and we have much of which to be proud.
As I’ve traveled this country, through all 50 states, as I’ve rejoiced with you and mourned with you, what I have also seen, more than anything, is what is right with America. I see people working hard and starting businesses. I see people teaching kids and serving our country. I see engineers inventing stuff, doctors coming up with new cures. I see a younger generation full of energy and new ideas, not constrained by what is, ready to seize what ought to be.
And most of all, I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That’s what I see. That’s the America I know!
But once again, we’re facing another choice. It’s the same choice. It’s the choice between an America that is afraid; an America that is paranoid and suspicious and solitary; an America that is jingoist and hateful and full of anger and frustration.
Donald Trump calls our military a disaster. Apparently, he doesn’t know the men and women who make up the strongest fighting force the world has ever known. He suggests America is weak. He must not hear the billions of men and women and children, from the Baltics to Burma, who still look to America to be the light of freedom and dignity and human rights. He cozies up to Putin, praises Saddam Hussein, tells our NATO allies that stood by our side after 9/11 that they have to pay up if they want our protection…
America is already great. America is already strong. And I promise you, our strength, our greatness, does not depend on Donald Trump. In fact, it doesn’t depend on any one person. And that, in the end, may be the biggest difference in this election—the meaning of our democracy.
Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix. It doesn’t matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they’ve been in decades—because he’s not actually offering any real solutions to those issues. He’s just offering slogans, and he’s offering fear. He’s betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election.
And that’s another bet that Donald Trump will lose. And the reason he’ll lose it is because he’s selling the American people short. We’re not a fragile people. We’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled. Our power comes from those immortal declarations first put to paper right here in Philadelphia all those years ago: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that We the People, can form a more perfect union.
That’s who we are. That’s our birthright—the capacity to shape our own destiny. That’s what drove patriots to choose revolution over tyranny and our GIs to liberate a continent. It’s what gave women the courage to reach for the ballot, and marchers to cross a bridge in Selma, and workers to organize and fight for collective bargaining and better wages.
America has never been about what one person says he’ll do for us. It’s about what can be achieved by us, together—through the hard and slow, and sometimes frustrating, but ultimately enduring work of self-government.
This has been one of his favorite lines throughout the years, the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. It represents a fundamental construction on the nature of living within a representative democracy. It is not thee government, it’s our government. Those who talk about “the government” warn of a boogeyman, a monolithic, autocratic outside force intent on invading and degrading our lives. It’s a fancy tale, but pure fiction.
The truth is that the American experiment represented something truly unique in the history of civilization: An opportunity to transform “the government” into our government. President Obama well knows that for much of American history this has been not a reality for all or even many Americans. But it is that toward which we strive and we fight and we bleed and we die.
Implicit in all of Barack Obama’s speeches is this notion that the most fundamental act in our political commonwealth is our collective political engagement. We do not vote for who a candidate is; we vote for who we are, as a people, as a nation. And the greatness of our people, of our nation, can never be represented by something as ugly as the politics of Donald J. Trump.
So this year, in this election, I’m asking you to join me—to reject cynicism and reject fear, and to summon what is best in us; to elect Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States, and show the world we still believe in the promise of this great nation.
To show the world, he’s saying, that we still believe in ourselves.
D.C. DeWitt is a writer and man of sport and leisure. He has also written for Government Executive’s RouteFifty.com, the National Journal’s Hotline, The New York Observer’s Politicker.com, and Girlfriends magazine. He is the Associate Editor of The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio. DeWitt can be found on Facebook and Twitter @DC_DeWitt.
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