President Obama’s weekend Selma speech, one of his best, hewed eloquently to the high road. But in many delicious turns of phrase, he also skewered the tinpot patriots who have constantly questioned his love of country.
It was all there in the subtext. While hailing the ’65 Selma marchers, he reminded us that patriotism is not the exclusive province of those who think America can do no wrong. He reminded us that real patriotism is about working doggedly to ensure that America gets it right. As he said of the Selma marchers, “they loved this country so much that they risk(ed) everything to realize its promise.”
The key passages:
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there, than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?…
“It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what’s right and shake up the status quo…If Selma taught us anything, it’s that our work is never done…
“That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional…Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing; we are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.”
Alas, most Republican leaders didn’t hear this message – because they didn’t show up. Too bad, they might’ve learned something important about love of country.
Mitch McConnell decided Selma wasn’t worth the bother; his House counterpart, John Boehner, skipped as well (there must’ve been a golf tournament on TV). Boehner’s press secretary issued a nice statement, figuring that was good enough. In fact, Boehner’s entire GOP leadership team was planning to bail – until commemoration eve, when Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was sufficiently shamed into going.
Much of the shaming was conducted by Republicans – the rare ones who realize that the party is unlikely to win another national election based on white votes alone.
GOP commentator Ron Christie wrote, “I find myself both shocked and angered (by the GOP’s AWOL ‘tude). There is a time for politics, and there is a time for national unity.” Michael Steele, the ex-party chairman, “We do dumb real well…If our leadership can’t stand with the black community in Selma, why would (blacks) believe we would stand with them on anything? Sometimes in politics, just being there is the key. Showing up says a lot more than a statement sent by your press secretary.”
Christie and Steele are black – but some whites chimed in, too. Daniel Doherty, deputy news editor at the conservative website Town Hall, dumped on the congressional leaders: “Truly mystifying. What else could they possibly be doing that’s more important?” And Joe Scarborough won the sound bite award: “Hey Republican leadership, get your ass down there. Get down there. This is not hard. Don’t golf. Don’t raise money.”
Reince Priebus, the current GOP chairman, got himself to Selma – to his credit. He’s long been trying to drum up minority outreach – to his credit. Problem is, most GOP congressional leaders don’t much care what Reince Priebus says. If only the sainted Bibi Netanyahu had issued a statement saying that he was going to Selma…that would’ve prompted a stampede.
I’m on the West Coast this week, ostensibly at leisure – which means that if my columns show up late, blame the time difference; and if they don’t show up at all, chalk it up to the fun factor.