2015 is drawing toward a close, time to think about this and the coming year. Most years leave in their trail a mixed, often messy, story — the good and the bad. As The Times reminded us in a Christmas Day editorial, ’15 brought us the Paris Agreement on global warming, the Supreme Court’s affirmation of marriage equality and much of Europe’s generously in opening its doors to countless refugees. I’d add to that, the Iran nuclear deal and reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba ending half a century of useless estrangement. The year ending was also one of horrendous, seemingly unending, violence, and conflict. It brought the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, the killing at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs — all three terrorist acts. Each received media attention, but countless more lives were lost to daily gun violence across the land. Also on the negative ledger, is the stunningly mean spirited Republican primary campaign underway and destined to continue well into 2016.
The Times editorial reflected on President Obama’s remarkable Amazing Grace eulogy for the fallen victims of last June’s purely domestic terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina. Another immediately came to mind — perhaps the greatest of his presidency — the soaring Selma speech at the bloody Edmund Pettus Bridge, 50 years on. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to watch both again. You should do the same. Without question, he is one of our greatest presidential orators, perhaps unmatched before crowds on such momentous occasions. As Mario Cuomo (1932-2015), another political orator of note, might have described them, his speeches can be pure poetry. They combine elegant text with compelling artful delivery. Charleston and Selma were prime examples of his special gift. In reliving them on the eve of 2016, I couldn’t help but wonder how Donald Trump or any of the other remaining thirteen might represent us on such occasions. A horrifying thought to be sure. Perhaps Macro Rubio fancies himself the Republican Obama — dream on — but I don’t see the oratorical likes of the President on the current scene or, for the matter, the horizon. This is not to suggest that Obama doesn’t have faults, including at times in communicating with us, or that, for example Hillary Clinton isn’t articulate, talented and highly qualified. It is merely to recognize his uniqueness.
Presidents are charged with crafting policy, decision-making (the “decider”) and generally leading the nation. As such, they mirror other chief executives in the business and non-profit world. Presidents are our voice and also our master accountants reporting yearly on the Union’s state. They are our ambassadors to the world, the embodiment of our global leadership. They don’t sit on the Hill, but are expected to drive key legislation. That’s a tall order, but we ask, no expect, more, much more. That’s what brought Obama to both Selma and Charleston this year and to Newtown in 2012. Part of his mission in the latter two was to fulfill the role of “Comforter-in-Chief”. But beyond offering consolation a president must inspire, must give special voice to our moral compass even when others seek to quiet or pervert it. Obama on too many tragic occasions has pleaded with us to do something beyond invoking condolences, however heartfelt. He wants us to curb or at a minimum better control the instruments of slaughter — not merely those who pull triggers but to the weapons that enable their atrocities.
Presidents are there to remind us of our identity, our accomplishments and what is yet to be done. “Two hundred and thirty-nine years after this nation’s founding”, he declared in Selma, “our union is not yet perfect”. We still have unfinished business, which brings me to the year ahead. It’s impossible to predict with any accuracy all that will transpire in 2016. There will be surprises, the unexpected. But we do know that by next summer, the presidential race will come into sharper focus. Nominees will emerge in what is likely to give us the starkest ideological choice since Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson faced off in 1964. One can’t overstate that the nation’s future will be on the ballot. Some of what Obama said at the foot of that historic bridge speaks vividly to the year ahead:
…our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or the President alone. If every new voter suppression law was struck down today, we’d still have one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. Fifty years ago, registering to vote here in Selma and much of the South meant guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap. It meant risking your dignity, and sometimes, your life. What is our excuse today for not voting? How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?
…so much has changed in fifty years. We’ve endured war, and fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives, and take for granted convenience our parents might scarcely imagine. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship, that willingness of a 26 year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five, to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.
We can’t control much of what will happen to us and to our country. That was true last year and will be in the years yet to come. What we can impact is our nation’s response to whatever that will be. If you were disappointed, yes even discouraged, especially in 2010 and 2012, blame it on low turnout, on the citizenship laziness that erodes our democracy. “What is our excuse…? How do we so fully give away our power, our voice in shaping America’s future?” Ultimately, we are the government. What elected officials do is done, they claim, in our name. Those actions are to our collective credit but all too often, to our collective fault. It won’t be enough to cast our individual vote next November. We shouldn’t let a day pass without reminding others of their responsibility, of how much we need their voice, their help just as they need ours. I know November 1st seems far off as December ebbs, but if we’re into resolutions come January 1, getting another voter to the polls — many other voters to the polls — should be at the top of our list.