The problem with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan saying they will make America great again is this: America has never ceased being great.
Ryan told us, as he stood on the deck of the mothballed battleship Wisconsin, that he and Romney “share one commitment: we will restore the dreams and greatness of this country.”
In truth, America is greater than ever, unless you define greatness only in terms of the economy.
Sure, China is booming. But look at it in terms of the principles set forth by our Founding Fathers as the measure of true greatness.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are not budget plans. They are about freedom and justice and the general welfare. We are only now moving to the full meaning of that, toward full greatness.
The true American dream is Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and that was not about the economy, stupid.
Consider Marcus Scott, resident of Brooklyn and descendant of slaves in Virginia. He was 5 years old in early 2008, when he visited Washington with his mother. He was holding an American flag when I saw him arrive on the Capitol grounds on what was both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration as the first black president. Marcus’s mother, Alison Scott, watched him dance happily on the lawn, waving the Stars and Stripes.
“It’s nice to be able to wave the flag and say we belong here,” she said.
Up atop the iconic dome was a bronze figure of Freedom that had been cast by a slave ironmonger before emancipation. Down on the grass below, Alison Scott was telling her son never to let the flag that was now truly his flag touch the ground.
“Remember that,” she said. “Keep the flag high.”
After the inauguration, the Scotts retuned to Brooklyn, where Marcus is now about to enter the fourth grade in the Gifted and Talented Program at Public School 282. He is 8, and what his family calls “a chess fanatic.” He also likes math and writing, having recently penned a story titled “Hooks.”
“Fish are kidnapped and try to find their way back to the ocean,’” he explains.
His family does worry about the shrinking middle class and about the rich getting richer while everybody else struggles and about this maybe becoming the first generation that is not better off than the one before. But that is not going to stop this happy, hard-studying youngster from becoming whatever he sets himself on, including his present ambition.
”I want to be the world’s greatest chess player,” he says.
He immediately answers in the negative when asked if he might also want to become a politician, but then he reconsiders.
“Actually I might,” he says, clearly a young man who does not want to limit his options.
In the meantime, he serves as an acolyte at Grace Episcopal Church, and has had the honor of carrying the cross. He remembers when he waved the flag on the grounds of the Capitol way back in kindergarten. He also remembers his mother telling him to make sure it did not touch the ground.
“It’s respectful,” he says.
If you need more proof of our greatness, consider a ceremony held Friday at the women’s memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, in sight of the Capitol and that figure of Freedom. The occasion was the promotion of Tammy Smith to brigadier general in the U.S. Army.
Her former commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Jack Stultz, gave the introductory remarks. He said Smith had at one time spoken of retiring, but had one thing she wanted to do.
“She said, ‘I want to deploy. I want a combat tour,’” Stultz told the gathering.
After a year in Afghanistan as a colonel, Smith returned to word that she was being promoted. The moment now came for the ceremonial Pinning of Rank. Smith was flanked by her father, Jack Smith, on one side, and on the other by her wife of almost a year, Tracey Hepner.
As her father pinned a general’s star on Tammy Smith’s right shoulder, her wife pinned the gold star on her left, by so doing making Smith the first openly gay general officer.
“Thank you, Mr. Smith and Ms. Harper,” the master of ceremonies then said.
“It’s a great day for the Army,” Stultz said, not because this newest general is gay or because she personifies both the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” and the advent of gay marriage, but simply because she is a fine officer.
And how great is that for America?
The ceremony had begun with the singing of the national anthem, whose core message is that our flag keeps flying gallant and unbowed even in the face of great peril.
“Oh say does that / Star Spangled banner yet wave?
Nobody should doubt that the country is in an economic fix, but what is that compared with being shelled through the night? And doesn’t America only prove her greatness all the more in the face of even the greatest adversity?
“O’er the land of the free / And the home of the brave.”
The bravery is what gets us through. And the freedom is what makes the fight worthwhile, what makes us only greater when times get tough.
Romney and Ryan might know that—if they ever came closer to combat than using an old battleship as a campaign backdrop the day after Smith’s promotion.
Ryan the self-appointed restorer has said he is against gay marriage, which means that for him even a woman who has spent a year deployed in Afghanistan should not be able to marry the woman she loves.
But married she is, along with being a general.
We are freer now, so we are necessarily greater.
To know it, all you need to do is place your hand over your heart, sing the anthem and know that Marcus Scott and Gen. Tammy Smith, and so many others are now truly in the land of the free.