Tuesday, July 4, 2017

America's Top 10 Greatest Moments

These are in chronological order.

1. July 4, 1776: The Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson explained that the British government -- not its people in Britain -- had betrayed its people in America, and had betrayed its stated ideals of freedom. He explained how. He explained how the people of British America had petitioned them to stop, and were answered with tyranny.

And so, in a profoundly liberal act -- conservatives of the time demanded continued loyalty to Britain -- the 56 men of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia -- including Jefferson himself, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and John Adams -- told the Parliament at Westminster, and King George III, essentially, "Enough. You have abused your authority over us, and so, we no longer recognize it. This land is our country now, not yours. Get your troops out of our country, or we will get them out for you."

Which turned out to be easier said than done. The War of the American Revolution was very nasty.

2. October 19, 1781: The Battle of Yorktown. We needed help. We got military assistance from Britain's ancient enemy, France. We got financial assistance from France, Spain and the Netherlands. But in southeastern Virginia on this day, General George Washington accepted the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis. It was not the end of the war, but it was the engagement that proved to Britain that we weren't giving up, so it was time to start peace talks.
George III and Cornwallis are both regarded as bad guys of American history, and they kind of get bad raps from our side. Since the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-90, British monarchs have had very little actual power. If George III had wanted to keep the war going, Parliament could have told him they wouldn't do it. And he is regarded as one of Britain's better monarchs, in spite of the mental illness that would eventually incapacitate him. He was also the only British King between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the accession of George VI in 1936 that appears not to have had a mistress.

As for Cornwallis, he was far less responsible for the British Army losing that battle than his superiors, whom he practically begged for reinforcements and supplies. He was later elevated to the rank of Marquess, and was appointed Governor-General of India, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Governor-General of India again, and was highly-regarded in those posts.

3. April 9, 1865: The Surrender at Appomattox. After General Ulysses S. Grant and his Army of the Potomac finally flushed General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia out of their protection of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Lee took his men further and further west, until, finally, he knew that his men, tired and hungry, could take no more. To borrow a phrase from Star Trek, resistance was futile.
Because Lee was willing to accept that the game was up, slavery could be abolished in America, and the process of establishing the equality of the races could begin. And let's be clear about this: The Union, the North, were the good guys; the Confederacy, the South, were the bad guys. The right side won, and the right side lost.

It's also worth pointing out that, at the time, the Republican Party was the liberal party of America, while the Democratic Party was the conservative party. This was a long time ago.

4. August 18, 1920: The 19th Amendment. Amending the Constitution of the United States requires a 2/3rds vote of each house of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate; and the approval of 3/4s of the State legislatures. Since there were 48 States in 1920, that meant 36 States. On the date in question, 35 States had ratified this Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Tennessee became the 36th.
As it turned out, 144 years (1776 to 1920).

5. August 14, 1935: The Social Security Act. Most of the "New Deal" measures of President Franklin D. Roosevelt could have been considered temporary measures, designed to deal with the emergency of the Great Depression, but some of them were so successful that they are still in place today, over 80 years later.

Social Security was different. Giving a national pension to people age 65 and up, after they'd worked all their adult lives (and possibly longer), was considered a gesture of mercy, especially since, while the average life expectancy was then 67, many people lived longer. (Ironically, the pressures of World War II and his own heavy smoking meant that FDR only lived to be 63.) And it's not just for old people: It also benefits children and the handicapped.
Today, the average life expectancy is 79, and living to be 100 is no longer a rarity. And many of the Baby Boomers, the largest generation ever produced, are now past age 65, some past 70, and millions more will soon surpass those ages. But Social Security is not "going broke."

The Social Security Act was amended in 1965, to create Medicare (health care for all, age 65 and up) and Medicaid (health care for the poor).

6. August 14, 1945: V-J Day. You can argue for any number of moments in America's role in World War II: The 1940 Republican Convention nominating Wendell Willkie, thus guaranteeing that, no matter who won the election, Willkie or FDR, America would have a President willing to stop Nazi Germany; FDR's measures to assist Britain without joining The War, such as Lend-Lease and the Atlantic Charter; and America's battles in The War, including "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," Midway, Guadalcanal, the invasion of North Africa, the liberation of Italy, D-Day, the liberation of the Philippines, Iwo Jima, V-E Day and Okinawa.

But the point was to win, and even defeating the Nazis, made official on V-E Day (Victory in Europe), May 8, 1945, was not the end. I still remember seeing a variation on this cartoon in 1979, when my local newspaper, then named The Home News, included it as part of their front page collection in their 100th Anniversary edition.
The War was won by the Allies, however, as America, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the various exiled governments finished the job on August 14, V-J Day (Victory over Japan). Granted, it didn't mean freedom for the whole world -- far from it -- but it did mean the end of 2 enemies that had threatened the freedom of that part of the world that was already free. And that was worth the greatest celebration in human history.
7. July 2, 1964: The Civil Rights Act. It took him 2 1/2 years, but President John F. Kennedy recognized the need, and demanded it from Congress. A coalition of conservatives, Republicans and Southern Democrats, fought it tooth and nail -- for "Constitutional reasons," they said. Yeah, surrrre.

But a coalition of liberal Democrats, led by House Speaker John McCormack and Senate Majority Whip Hubert Humphrey, and enough Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, passed the bill, and put it on the desk of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed it in the presents of JFK's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 followed the much-weaker Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, and made possible the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It's strange how Republicans forgive all the harm done by their Presidents, and embrace their achievements; while Democrats overlook these Civil Rights Acts, and the aforementioned Medicare and Medicaid, and other achievements of LBJ, and still hold the Vietnam War against him, when he didn't start it, and did more to end it (if in vain) in 1968 alone than Richard Nixon did over the next 4 years.

8. July 20, 1969: Apollo 11. JFK insisted on it. LBJ, who as Senate Majority Leader wrote the bill that created NASA and continued to support it as President, funded it. Unfortunately, it was Richard Nixon who made the big phone call to Houston that was patched through to the lunar lander Eagle, for Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin to hear.

But when Armstrong stopped onto the surface of the Moon at 10:56 PM Eastern Time on that magical night, and said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," it felt like the ultimate achievement. Like we could do anything.
And then, as Jerry Seinfeld pointed out in 1994, on the 25th Anniversary, everything we've done since, or failed to do since, "is measured against that one momentous act." You know the saying: "If we can put a man on the Moon, why can't we (do some far simpler act)?"

9. August 8, 1974: Nixon Announces His Resignation. No person is beneath the protection of the law, and no person is above the responsibility of the law. Not even the President of the United States. As late as April 1977, 3 months after his 2nd term would have ended, Nixon still believed, as he told interviewer David Frost, "When the President does it, that means it is not illegal."

But on August 7, 1974, following the release of tapes from the Oval Office, unanimously ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, that proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Nixon was guilty of the impeachable offense of obstruction of justice, he was visited at the White House by the House Minority Leader, John Rhodes; the Senate Minority Leader, Hugh Scott; and the leader of the conservative movement, Senator Barry Goldwater. They told him that the game was over: They didn't have the votes to prevent the majority in the House needed to impeach him, and they didn't have the votes to prevent the 2/3rds majority in the Senate needed to remove him from office, and the only way to prevent those actions was to become the 1st President to resign the office.

The next night, in a nationally televised speech from the Oval Office, he announced that he would resign the next day. He did. When Vice President Gerald Ford was sworn in as the new President, he told the nation, "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws, and not of men. Here, the people rule."
And, as Donald Trump ignores at his own peril, Nixon's recognition of that fact proved it. As did...

10. November 4, 2008: A Black Man Is Elected President. The candidacy of Barack Obama, then a 47-year-old U.S. Senator from Illinois, brought out the best in millions of Americans, and the worst in millions of others.

The fact that he defeated a Democratic primary field that included Senator Hillary Clinton (whom he asked to be his Secretary of State), Senator Joe Biden (whom he asked to be his Vice President), and other Party heavyweights such as Senators Chris Dodd and Evan Bayh, and Bill Richardson, who had been a Governor, a Senator, and a Cabinet official, showed that he was able to handle the Republican nominee, Senator and war hero John McCain, on any issue, from the crumbling economy to the seemingly never-ending War On Terror and Iraq War.

As President-elect Obama took the stage that night -- as a fan of the film V for Vendetta, I noticed that, while it was 11:00 PM in Chicago, the Hawaiian's adopted hometown, where his rally was held, it was midnight in New York and New Jersey, turning to the 5th of November, the moment when V's posthumous victory was achieved -- I was just happy that 8 years of Republican malfeasance and incompetence were coming to an end, and that the Democrats could begin to, to coin a phrase, make America as great as it always should have been.

But as the TV cameras scanned the crowd, there was Oprah Winfrey, who had worked hard to make this moment happen, even when Hillary was the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic primaries. She was still going to be alive and rich and comfortable regardless of whether Obama or McCain (or, in what would have been a massive fluke, another candidate) won. And yet, she had tears in her eyes, overwhelmed by the moment.

And, a few feet away from her, there was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, like Oprah a native of the South who had made his national fame in that great City of Chicago, and who had run for President himself in 1984 (coming in 3rd in Democratic delegates) and 1988 (coming in 2nd). It would have been easy for him to stand there, and remember his old line, "If not me, who? If not now, when?" It would have been easy, now that he had the answers to those questions, a generation later, to think, "Damn, that should have been me up there, 20 years ago." Instead, he stood there, moved to tears, knowing that, to borrow Halle Berry's phrase from her Oscar acceptance speech, that moment was so much bigger than him.

It was only then that I got it: This was the greatest moment in American history. This is what the preceding 400 years of colonial, revolutionary, and national history had led to. Yes, it took a nasty recession and a stupid war, and millions of Americans would never accept this half-black Ivy League lawyer from Chicago with the Arabic name as their President.

But it had happened: The American people, as a whole, had chosen a man who, though he had so many factors and so many people against him, deserved the Presidency, on merit. They chose not to ignore their history, but to change it, to fulfill it.
Someday -- it wasn't to be for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it will happen someday -- America will elect a female President. Someday, a Hispanic one. Someday, an Asian one. Someday, a Jewish one. Someday, a Muslim one. Someday, a gay one. Hell, someday, we might even elect a Polish Yankee Fan from New Jersey. (It won't be me. I would be only a little more appropriate for the office than the current halftime occupant of it.)

But none of those will have the same meaning as the election of Barack Hussein Obama as our President. Wherever they were on that night, Crispus Attucks, Sally Hemings, Benjamin Banneker, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, A. Philip Randolph, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were saying, "You were right, Barack: And now, YES WE DID."

And their white allies, and perhaps a few of those who had opposed them, could now accept that it was right.

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