Thursday, September 10, 2009

Keep the Faith. Above All, Keep the Faith

President Obama's speech last night was full of intelligence and wisdom, but probably the wisest, most impassioned section of all was its soaring conclusion, which portrayed health care reform in sharply moral terms. To call the address it a "defense of liberalism", in the words of a commentator for whom I have much regard, is a bit of an oversimplification. Social justice and ethical conduct have no partisan or otherwise ideological identity in and of themselves, though some have, for their own selfish purposes, defined an emphasis on improving health and well-being for everyone in terms of one side pitted against another.

The pundits and prognosticators have weighed in long before I write this and so any analysis I might add specifically in response to the Health Care Address at this hour would likely be the unfortunate product of overlap and redundancy. What I do wish to point out, by means of contrast, is how our President's words match up against those of Presidents prior. It is instructive at times to view the words uttered in similar instances by previous leaders in prior ages, particularly in circumstances where much was on the line and a fiercely fought struggle was underway.

The conclusion of Obama's speech, in part, noted previous reform efforts and gave reminder of the criticism of those who had opposed them at the time. He then pointed out that despite the smears and fears that there was ultimately beneficial, measurable evidence that these programs upon enactment made a positive impact upon everyone.

That large-heartedness - that concern and regard for the plight of others - is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people's shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together; that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand. A belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

This has always been the history of our progress. In 1933, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism. But the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.

President Obama is not a knife fighter, nor is he a person inclined to make unnecessary enemies unless he must. For those of us who wish otherwise, we can often and easily be frustrated when Obama still seeks to find some degree of bipartisan support for his legislative agenda. Perhaps he is finally realizing, as many have noted before---enemies are sometimes necessary things in politics. In great contrast, I refer to President Truman's Democratic National Convention acceptance speech given in July of 1948. In surveying this speech, what makes an immediate impact upon me is not the 10% of the speech that has dated with the passage of sixty-one years, but the 90% of it which is still, incredibly, applicable to the current day.

This convention met to express the will and reaffirm the beliefs of the Democratic Party. There have been differences of opinion, and that is the democratic way. Those differences have been settled by a majority vote, as they should be.

Now it is time for us to get together and beat the common enemy. And that is up to you.

We have been working together for victory in a great cause. Victory has become a habit in our party. It has been elected four times in succession, and I am convinced it will be elected a fifth time in November.

The reason is that the people know that the Democratic Party is the people's party, and the Republican party is the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.

And, later in the speech, a familiar refrain.

I have repeatedly asked the Congress to pass a health program. The Nation suffers from lack of medical care. That situation can be remedied any time the Congress wants to act upon it.

Truman favored a single-payer system, one that was ultimately defeated by the American Medical Association, who capitalized on baseless fears and in so doing, invoked socialism in the process. This sounds somehow familiar.

And another one.

The Republican platform is for extending and increasing social security benefits. Think of that! Increasing social security benefits! Yet when they had the opportunity, they took 750,000 off the social security rolls!

And still another one.

At the same time I shall ask them to act upon other vitally needed measures such as aid to education, which they say they are for; a national health program; civil rights legislation, which they say they are for; an increase in the minimum wage, which I doubt very much they are for; extension of social security coverage and increased benefits, which they say they are for; funds for projects needed in our program to provide public power and cheap electricity. By indirection, this 80th Congress has tried to sabotage the power policies the United States has pursued for 14 years. That power lobby is as bad as the real estate lobby, which is sitting on the housing bill.

Truman was in many ways the Anti-Obama. Plain-spoken to an almost childish degree compared to the unyielding eloquence of Obama, indebted to short, blunt, to-the-point sentences rather than the heavily stylized flowing prose of Obama's rhetoric, eager to pursue unceasing, direct attacks on his opponents, and possessed of a kind of scrappy boxer's nature, Truman had no qualms about going directly for the jugular. Though many phrases, some of them so vulgar a sailor would blush were heard in Truman's close company, "bipartisan" was certainly not among them.

When one considers Presidential comparisons, I can't help thinking about those now-ancient days of seven months ago or more. Many Progressives thought they were getting Lincoln 2.0 based on a combination of Obama's eloquence and his desire to shape an inner circle and cabinet of disparate, sometimes discordant voices. What we neglected to understand is that if, in fact, our new President was cut from the same Lincoln cloth, then we would have him for both the high points and low points of a term. Had there been such things as Gallup polls and approval ratings then, I daresay Lincoln would have been subject at times to several dips and sharply declining numbers, particularly when the Union lost key battles in succession and war seemed inclined to drag on ceaselessly. One musn't forget that the first two years of the Civil War were full of one demoralizing Union defeat after another, only remedied when the President finally found a general willing to engage the Confederacy directly in battle, rather then resorting to a harm-reduction timidity that characterized the military strategy of a score of previous commanders.

In his Second Inaugural Address, the war very now nearly won, though the outcome still largely uncertain, Lincoln made light of a passage of scripture from the Gospel of Matthew. I have chosen to present it in more modern day language so that its fullest meaning would not be misunderstood.

How horrible it will be for the world because it causes people to lose their faith. Situations that cause people to lose their faith will arise. How horrible it will be for the person who causes someone to lose his faith!

In Lincoln's context, "it", means a war, but "it", in a broader context could mean any struggle full of acrimony, bitterness, and strife. Though the ultimate resolution of this health care debate is still some ways away, let us seek to learn from the lesson of Lincoln and not allow matters this important to cause us to lose our faith. In the unceasing back and forth it is easy to become just as jaded as we were before the past Presidential election. No cause worth fighting for is easy or simple or even often reaches a satisfactory conclusion, but knowing even that, we should not allow the reality of the situation to compromise our dreams and hopes. Too often we treat our own faith as an insurance policy, to be turned to only in periods of crisis. Our faith ought to sustain us in good times, as well as trying times. We have heard the call to action. We know well the identity of those who oppose us. Let us renew our faith for now and for forever. We will not be stopped.

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