Hurricane Sandy’s imperious reign of watery and wind-blown destruction all along the East Coast brought me back to the idea of community. Sadly, perhaps inevitably, it takes tragedy to remind us that we are inextricably linked—that wealth, status or runway-model beauty does not shield anyone from our shared fate as Americans.
These sentiments were eloquently expressed in one of the most fateful speeches in modern political history. Like most great rhetoric, it’s now remembered for a few catch phrases rather than actually re-read. But the portions that are relevant at this moment of storm-tossed suffering stand the test of time.
“Alongside our famous individualism,” the speaker declared, “there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people. It is that fundamental belief, ‘I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper’ that makes this country work. It allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.”
The speaker was Barack Obama—and the occasion was his 2004 Democratic Convention speech that vaulted him from an obscure Illinois state senator to a 2008 presidential victory. I cite these eight-year-old words not out of heavy-handed irony, but because they capture the we-are-all-in-this-together realities of modern life.
New York City, which in emergencies can carry on with the aplomb of London during the blitz, was battered by the storm. But it’s also a city where even financial titans in their Park Avenue duplexes cannot escape their sense of inter-connectedness with the doormen and delivery people who ride the subway. That’s the essence of urban life—everyone walks the same sidewalks, shares the same electric grid and instinctively understands the fragility of the city’s ecosystem.
Obama, the rootless wanderer who finally discovered a sense of place on the south side of Chicago, understands these realities of urban life better than any president since John F. Kennedy. In that 2004 convention speech, he declared, “If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.” As Americans, we are all, in essence, part of the same community.
This is not the moment for partisan wrangling over why Obama as president failed to bring red states and blue states together or to restore a sense of unity and purpose to the nation. In truth, the causes of the post-inaugural letdown were many—the incoming president was naïve; the Republicans were obstinate; the culture of Washington was toxic; Obama’s efforts at olive-branch politics were fitful; and the economic divisions between the two parties were unbridgeable.
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It’s worth recalling that Obama was elected president just seven years after the horrors of Sept. 11. During the sad-eyed autumn of 2001, there were high-minded pledges to suspend political divisiveness and glib predictions that Americans would come together as they did on the World War II home-front. Within nine months the patriotism of a sitting senator was being assailed and by the time the first bombs were dropped over Baghdad, any remnants of star-spangled unity were in tatters.
So I have no illusions that the deadly storm—hitting just a week before another factious presidential election—will change anything. The selfless bravery of New York City’s police officers and firefighters will not restore luster to the ideal of public service. And the quiet competence of FEMA will not halt the demonizing of the federal government.
But post-storm, maybe we can pause to reflect on the reality that next week’s presidential election is not a comic-strip battle between good versus evil nor is it a struggle between an alien ideology and good-old American virtue. Obama is not a secret European socialist out to establish a collectivist state. And Mitt Romney is not a money-mad plutocrat who revels in throwing widows and orphans into the cold for being behind in the rent.
Rather, Obama and Romney are both flawed candidates. Obama has a mixed record as a president in terrible times. And there is no evidence, beyond Republican faith, that Romney can restore the economy let alone bring peace to the Middle East and tame Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That is the nature of democracy—some years the choices appear more inspiring than other years. And in 2012, neither Teddy nor Franklin Roosevelt is on the ballot.
What Nov. 6 represents is merely the way that more than 300 million people will allocate political power for the next four years. In most election years, as is the case today, candidates and commentators will hyperbolically declare that America’s future hangs in the balance as the stakes have never been greater. Such exaggerated rhetoric comes with the territory. But regardless of electoral outcome, the safe bet is that America will muddle through.
During the 1968 presidential campaign –with the nation riven over Vietnam—Richard Nixon incorporated into his stump speech a parable about a little girl in Ohio holding a sign saying, “Bring Us Together.”
Coming from Nixon, a partisan poison-pen artist long before Watergate, the sentiment was ludicrous. But it spoke to a dream embedded in our collective political soul. That is why in the wake of a natural disaster, we can pause to recognize how much the current politics of vitriol are a man-made disaster.