Coming Home to America

The Coughlin Camponile

Returning to my home town of Brookings a few weeks ago for the 50th reunion of our high school class with classmate, soulmate, and blogmate Skip Christensen was an emotional experience.  As a young child, I lived only a few blocks from  the campus of South Dakota State University (then South Dakota State College) and I would often play around the base of the Camponile, amazed that it was even there amidst the corn fields of the Great Plains. Whenever we came into town at night, its red revolving beacon welcomed us home as a lighthouse guides sailors into port.  My head was flooded with special memories when I saw it again.

My feelings were bitter-sweet.  The reunion reminded me of how much the United States, and all of us, have changed in the fifty years since I called Brookings home.  The Camponile reminded me of how much our society has lost its moral compass, and needs help finding its way back home.  I’ve been studying the subject of extreme economic inequality, and coming to realize how very much trouble looms ahead for the American economy.  Happily Brookings, and the Dakotas generally, are relatively prosperous in this time of inequality growth, but the recent uptick in employment and investment in America may be the economy’s last hurrah before Great Depression II sets in.  We’re only starting to learn about this problem, as the data needed to understand it has only recently been gathered. We are learning, however, that inequality growth must be stopped and reversed, and that what we absolutely must do is something the Republican Party absolutely refuses to do:   tax the rich.

But there’s a larger problem, and that is a widespread loss of America’s moral compass. When I arrived at my new job in Albany, New York, forty years ago, my hero was South Dakota’s Senator George McGovern, who was running for president in the fall of 1972.  I proudly campaigned for him.  I finally met him when he came to the campus of Albany State University in 2009 on a book tour, promoting his book “Abraham Lincoln.” How appropriate, I thought, for a man of his integrity to be honored with the assignment to write the story of Abraham Lincoln in a major series of presidential biographies.

George McGovern has a strong, sensible moral compass, one that reflects a great deal of caring for people.  When I shook his hand and he signed his book for me, he genuinely wanted to talk to me longer than he could.  He wanted to know who I knew in Brookings in my youth, and who my friends had been.  As I drove home from that memorable meeting, I remembered how quickly Americans seemed to have forgotten, during his bid for the presidency, that George McGovern was a true American hero, a man who survived numerous bombing missions over Europe during WW II.  He was a war hero who, like former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, detested war.

McGovern was born in 1922, the year my mother was born in western Kansas.  My parents, both descendants of 19th century heartland settlers, were very much like George McGovern.  My father served in the Navy during WW II, in the Philippines, and later wrote a novel about his experience.  I thought about George McGovern on this return to Brookings, which is not far from his home town of Mitchell, and I thought about the humble and heartwarming comments he offered to an enthusiastic audience at his book-signing event. This is an excerpt from McGovern’s recent comments (here) in The Washington Post (9/28/2012) about his losing bid for the presidency:

I had a capable team and dedicated supporters. The crowds at campaign events were large and enthusiastic. I didn’t pay undue attention to the polls, and I wasn’t overly concerned that there would be no face-to-face debates with Nixon.

But when election night came and the early returns revealed one of the most lopsided victories in U.S. history, I was genuinely stunned.

Most disappointing was that I did not carry my home state of South Dakota. The voters of South Dakota had known me for many years, and I thought they would have believed it to be in their interest to elect one of their own to the presidency.

The loss is there, an old wound never fully healed. My disappointment was certainly personal, made deeper by the awareness that many thousands of young Americans, and far more Vietnamese and other Asian citizens, were going to and did lose their lives with the Nixon administration’s continuation of the war.

And I was upset that my supporters would carry the burden of the loss, too — something that has weighed on me all these years. I wanted to win for them, just as I wanted to win for the soldiers I planned to bring home quickly, and for an economy I hoped to redirect toward peace and domestic investments.

A letter to the editor appearing a few days later (10/2/2012) in The Washington Post (here), prompted by McGovern’s reflections, reminds us that many McGovern supporters still vividly remember their strong devotion to him and all that he stood for.

I am reminded of George McGovern, too, when I think about my son Ryan’s service in the Marine Corps from 2000-2005.  His mother and I are proud and grateful for his patriotism, but we are grateful as well that his active duty assignment was to Japan, and not to the senseless war in Iraq.  Ryan recently graduated from law school and hopes in his his career to make a contribution to America’s future, and we couldn’t be more proud of what he has accomplished.

What a difference it would make for all our young men and women in military service to be able to serve under a president like George McGovern or Barack Obama, instead of a president like GW Bush or Mitt Romney.  They could all then be as proud of their service to America as we are of them.  The current Republican Party has become irresponsibly indifferent to the American people,  and its indifference to those who serve and protect our country is especially egregious.  Republican policies reflect a heartless mentality, which is why, as he explained yesterday (here), former South Dakota Republican Senator Larry Pressler voted for President Obama in 2008 and now endorses him for reelection.  Unable appropriately to select excerpts, I post Pressler’s comments in full:

As a combat veteran of two tours in Vietnam with twenty-two years of service as a Republican member of the U.S. House and Senate, I endorse President Barack Obama for a second term as our Commander-in-Chief. Candidates publicly praise our service members, veterans and their families, but President Obama supports them in word and deed, anywhere and every time.

As a Vietnam vet, one of the reasons I support President Obama is because he has consistently shown he understands that our commitment to our servicemen and women may begin when they put on their uniform, but that it must never end.

This decision is not easy for any lifelong Republican. In 2008 I voted for Barack Obama, the first time I ever voted for a Democrat, because the Republican Party was drifting toward a dangerous path that put extreme party ideology above national interest. Mitt Romney heads a party remaining on that dangerous path, proving the emptiness of their praise as they abandon our service members, veterans and military families along the way.

What really set me off was Romney’s reference to 47% of Americans to be written off – including any veteran collecting disability like myself, as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) veteran.

Behind closed doors with his donors, Romney made clear he’d write off half of America – including service members and veterans – because, as he said “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility for their lives.” But there’s no greater personal responsibility than to wear your country’s uniform and defend the rights we all enjoy as Americans. We don’t sow division between “us” versus “them.” The Commander-in-Chief sets the bar for all to follow and fight for the entire country. Mitt Romney fails that test. As a veteran I feel written off.

Just as revealing is what Romney actually says publicly. As a former Foreign Service Officer, I find it offensive that Romney, Congressman Paul Ryan and their Republican Party are politicizing the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other brave Americans who lost their lives in Libya. Being Commander-in-Chief requires a resolve and steadiness that’s immune to politics and fear mongering. Mitt Romney fails that test.

And along with high-profile Republican surrogates, Romney and Ryan are pandering to election-year politics rather than focusing on pending cuts to military spending. Strategy should drive our military priorities, not party purity.

We are a nation at war – the longest war in our nation’s history – and we must remember the sacrifice that so many have given for the protection of our country and our values. That’s why it’s so surprising that Republican nominee Mitt Romney has given five speeches on foreign policy – and will be giving another one today – and has yet to outline any plan to end the war in Afghanistan or bring our troops home. That’s unacceptable for anyone running to be Commander-in-Chief.

President Obama ended one war, is ending another and meeting our national security needs with support of our military leaders. He’s laid out a clear plan that would reduce the deficit and prevent the mandatory military spending cuts that no one wants. But today’s Republican Party, including Ryan who voted for the deal that would trigger the cuts, is willing to bring our country’s defenses to the fiscal cliff – just so a multimillionaire doesn’t have to pay a single extra penny in taxes. And the real lack of leadership? Failing to own up to your role in racking up a record debt from two unpaid wars and two massive unpaid for tax cuts. Mitt Romney leads the party that fails this leadership test.

And as former member of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and Chairman of the then Commerce Committee, I came to know the federal budget in detail. I’m disappointed that just as our troops are returning home after a decade of war, Romney and Ryan might gut by up to 20 percent investments in the Department of Veterans Affairs – and even suggest privatizing the veterans’ health care. Again, they would short change our national security and the education, health care and employment benefits our veterans have earned and deserve just to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

Let’s be clear, Romney and Ryan would be disastrous for America’s service members, veterans and military families. Public praise rings hollow when you fail to mention an ongoing war in accepting your party’s nomination to be president, or veterans in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a so-called jobs plan or in a budget that should be a blue print of our nation’s values.

Meanwhile President Obama recognizes our sacred trust with those who serve starts when they take their oath and never ends. He’s enacted tax credits to spur businesses to hire unemployed veterans and wounded warriors. He implemented and improved the post-9/11 GI Bill, the largest investment in veterans education since the original GI Bill over sixty years ago. He’s proposing a Veterans Jobs Corps that would put returning service members to work as police officers, firefighters and first responders. As part of his achievable plan to keep moving our country forward, the President would use half the savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to help pay down our debt and invest in nation building here at home, putting Americans back to work – including our veterans – fixing our roadways and runways, bridges and schools.

And something that hits close to home, President Obama also secured the largest increase in VA investments in decades so our veterans get the care and benefits they earned, like treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. As someone with service-related PTSD, I meet with younger veterans weekly to help them through the treatment and transition to a productive civilian life. It makes a difference for them knowing their President has their back.

That’s the difference in this election. In word and deed anywhere and every time, President Obama never forgets that standing by those who serve is the heart, soul and core value of this country. As a life-long Republican, I stand by him as he stands by all of us, putting national allegiance ahead of party affiliation. I endorse President Obama for reelection in 2012.

America, that says it all.

Please come home.

JMH – 10/10/12

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2 Responses to Coming Home to America

  1. American says:

    Bleeding heart liberal, now’s your chance to see the greatest depression the world has ever known, following the reelection of Barry Hussein Obama. Unless you are a dependent and unproductive American, you will be seeing an increase in your income tax. Bloviate, JMH, bloviate!

    • Well, no. My friend, the evidence shows that cutting taxes on the rich has just made them wealthier over thirty years. We have already been in a mild depression since the crash of 2008, and for 4 years, while incomes at the top have sky-rocketed, the median (real) income in America has fallen by about 10%. There is no small business income in the U.S. anymore below the top 1%, and the top 1% got 93% of all income growth in 2010 — more now. The majority of Americans could sense the danger, though we’re not aware of the full extent of it yet. Thanks to the reelection of Obama, there will be a repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the rich. As for being a bleeding heart liberal, well, my heart bleeds for America, and for you, my friend. None of us deserves Great Depression #2 — and we’re not out of the woods yet! JMH

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