Maybe it's no accident that Senators Obama and McCain are knee-deep in a war of words over the meaning of patriotism as July 4th approaches. But when our two presidential candidates spend their days in a war of words over patriotism, the queasiness from my post 9/11 patriotism hangover comes racing back. Unfortunately, the after-taste is strong and the symptoms are all-too-familiar. The recent war of words began in earnest when retired Army General Wesley K. Clark went after McCain on Sunday's "Face the Nation". "I don't think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president," he said. Of course, the McCain camp fired back and even questioned Obama's rebuke of Clark.
Then on Monday Obama gave a defining speech on "patriotism" at the Truman Memorial Building in Independence, MO. The speech had been planned before the war of words, all part of a week-long effort on patriotism to shore up his standing among Americans.
The week before TIME magazine put the "meaning of patriotism" on its front cover, saying that "what we need going forward is a third-way patriotism, a new patriotism that blends the faith of our fathers with, as Lincoln said, the unfinished work remaining before us." The article suggested that both McCain and Obama are caught in a polarized debate and need to discover this so-called "third way."
Finding any way forward on patriotism is tough these days. After 9/11, we Americans felt deeply about our country. Many of us flew flags outside our homes (as did I), placed decals on our cars, and wore lapel pins. It wasn't that these expressions weren't real, but after time they had the quality of feeling shallow. Many of us wondered what we should do next. With whom were we to engage in this spirit of patriotism? Was going shopping enough, as the president suggested?
In Hope Unraveled, Americans told me that they could hear the window of opportunity to do something positive in the country slam shut, saying that we had lost the chance to tap into the sense of patriotism that so many people had expressed post 9/11. Today, I would argue an uneasy feeling exists among many Americans: how do we balance wanting to express heart-felt beliefs about love of nation, while wondering if our expressions are hollow or simplistic.
But the more McCain and Obama fight, the more our own sense of patriotism gets pushed aside, minimized, even trivialized. And yet, in 2008, I wonder how each of us would define the meaning of patriotism and its place in our daily lives? This is what I wish the candidates would find the courage to engage us on.
Thus in the coming days I want the two candidates to address us, not simply bark at each other. This current debate is unfolding as if we're all passive bystanders simply looking on. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
July 4th is about us -- we the people, and this our beloved nation. The two candidates should engage us in a conversation about the meaning of patriotism post 9/11. I want them to raise the stakes by asking us to think about and act on a definition of patriotism that speaks to our aspirations here and now. I want them to challenge us to step forward. I want them to help us gain clarity on the essence of patriotism in this new, changing world of ours.
This is an opportunity for each of the candidates to turn from themselves and toward us. And it is an opportunity for each of us to turn toward one another. Now is our time.