Watching President Trump honor Pearl Harbor veterans in the White House this holiday season, it was easy to forget for a few moments the divisions that separate us as Americans.
There was dignity and levity. An aging veteran in a Hawaiian shirt spontaneously broke into song, singing a chorus of “Remember Pearl Harbor” without missing a beat or a lyric. The president and vice president were respectful. It was, for a fleeting moment, more like the way our country used to be, before we became so divided that bridging the divide seems almost impossible.
The veterans reminded me of World War II veterans it has been my privilege to know. To a person, they set an example by the way they lived. They were honest, decent people. They lived by and exemplified the principles on which our country was founded. They suffered greatly and thousands of them died during their war, but despite what they had to endure there is at least one way in which I’ve always envied their generation.
And never more than now.
The WWII generation was the last to experience what it was like for the entire country to pull together for an extended time. Everyone from soldiers on the battlefield to families growing victory gardens was on the same page. Never in our history has our name, the United States of America, been more apt.
The leader of our troops and later of our country was a five-star general whose honesty and integrity were unquestioned. The term “sexual harassment” was yet to be invented. Incidents of it undoubtedly happened, but compared with today, society in general was almost puritanical. The actors on a popular television program weren’t allowed to use the word “pregnant,” even though the star of the show was. Network executives deemed it too vulgar for public consumption.
Fast forward to the present. This fall I checked out a show that reviewers have called one of the best of the season and was stunned to see what once would have been considered hard core pornography.
If it’s on TV in prime time, on programs judged to be among the best, it must be acceptable, right? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that sexual harassment is making headlines.
Two of our last four presidents have lied in public and been accused of sexual improprieties. In Congress, sexual harassment scandals are more common than legislative achievements. And doing the right thing now appears to be secondary to doing whatever helps the political party.
Dishonesty is something we’ve come to expect from our leaders. Members of Congress have lied repeatedly in covering up improper behavior and used our tax money to pay for the coverups. The president, according to the Washington Post, was responsible for more than 1,300 misleading statements or verifiable lies by early October.
Some would dismiss this as “fake news,” an alternative reality in which legitimate news is rejected. Most Americans would agree, however, that the media – led by the Post – did a pretty good job of serving the public interest during Watergate. And if not the media, who else will fill the watchdog role that has served our country so well since its inception? The founding fathers knew exactly what they were doing when they made freedom of the press the first amendment. To attack it is to threaten our democracy.
In the year that is about to end, members of Congress and the Supreme Court, former presidents, entertainers, even private citizens have publicly been insulted as hacks, losers, fools, dummies, dopes, fat pigs … Since when is this considered acceptable public behavior from our leaders?
The crowds at last year’s campaign rallies were marked by insults, fistfights, vulgar placards and T-shirts and attacks on journalists covering the campaign. At least one network considered it alarming enough that it hired body guards to protect one of its reporters.
If our leaders are a reflection of our society, maybe we deserve the kind of leadership we have. And maybe, just maybe, society is beginning a new phase.
It shouldn’t take a tragedy for it to happen, but the outpouring of compassion and support for victims of terrorism, fires, floods and other tragedies shows that we’re still capable of pulling together, that unity is still possible in our divided nation.
The special election in Alabama was another encouraging sign. It wasn’t just a political victory for one party. It was a sign that regardless of party affiliations, voters have had enough disgraceful behavior from their leaders and won’t take it any more because we’re better than that.
And, as the special election in Alabama has shown, there still are plenty of Americans who value integrity and honorable conduct. Society will never return to what it was during WWII, and in some ways that’s a good thing, but maybe we can return to having more respect for doing the right thing and voting for leaders who feel the same way.
My Christmas wish for the coming year is that we’ll begin to bridge the divide that separates us, and that civility again will have a place in our affairs of state. Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, we’re all still Americans.
Peace on Earth and good will toward men may be too much to hope for in today’s world. But we can hope, and pray, that the new year will bring a renewed commitment to common decency, and the enduring values that unite us as Americans.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Have an idea for a column subject for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.