Volume 78 - Number 39 / March 4 -10, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Talking Point

A patriot for you and for me: Obama’s brave battle

By Jerry Tallmer

I am a Gettysburg freak, though I have only been there, physically, twice in my life — once as an impressionable kid of 12 or 13 and once as an adult in the traumatic year of 1968 when this nation and much of the rest of the world were in the throes of near-revolutionary nervous breakdown.

I had just come from covering the tear-gas-ridden, brutalistic Democratic National Convention in Mayor Richard Daley’s little old toddling Chicago town, my own nervous breakdown consisting of a sustained shame-over-Vietnam refusal to stand up for what I’d stood up for my whole previous life — the Stars and Stripes at the beginning of baseball games, football games, or, for that matter, national conventions.

My father had read to me, every Fourth of July throughout my boyhood — tears in his eyes provoking a tingle in my own — Edward Everett Hale’s terrific short story “The Man Without a Country,” about an embittered war hero, Lieutenant Philip Nolan, who had exclaimed: “Damn the United States! I  wish I may never hear of the United States again!” and was given cause to regret it all the rest of his life.

Hale, we are told, wrote this piece in 1863 to boost patriotism in peoples of the North during the great Civil War that had climaxed at the Bloody Angle at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.

It was in the heat of that July day that the foremost of the 12,500 men of Pickett’s Charge got as far as the Angle and no farther — were driven back, in retreat, at face-to-face range, by the withering rifle and canon fire of the Union forces of General George Meade.

Let me tell anyone who hasn’t seen it about the Bloody Angle. It is a kitty-cornered stone wall, no more than 2 feet high, if that, near a poetically placed clump of trees that demark the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. You can easily step right over that low wall; I did, several times.

And it is here, at the high watermark of the Confederacy, that history — the history of a nation that could no longer exist half-slave, half-free — swung like a giant hinge at that 2-foot-high rough stone wall.

If the brave men living and dead who struggled there, at that wall, that hinge, were patriots in the purist sense, or if Tom Paine, a hundred years earlier, could write …

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman …

… so too, it is becoming clearer every day, is the straight-arrow young man whom we the people have chosen to be president of these United States. His  soaring (to read) Inaugural Address bespoke Barack Obama the liege of History; his February 24 initial address to the Joint Session of Congress gave us in every line more cause to thank our stars (and stripes) for Obama the patriot.

There are patriots and there are scoundrels. Or as Samuel Johnson famously put it: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” All too often it is also the first refuge, as we have had much bitter reason to realize during the past eight years, not to mention a flood of certain earlier years and wars. Or during peacetime, for that matter. Scoundrel-patriotism recognizes no boundaries.

Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ there, the old song tells us. But there’s also an inverse. Murray Kempton once did a column about a black Southern minister’s reflections on the civil rights movement’s discovery of Martin Luther King, Jr. “We were just looking for a frontman,” the old minister said (I quote from inexact memory), “and we came up with Moses.”

Well, on November 4, 2008, some 69 million of us voted for something vaguely called Change … and came up with, not Philip Nolan and not Dick Cheney, but a real live honest-to-God patriot who is proving it to us more and more with each passing hour of each passing day.

Some months ago I was, I think, a bit ahead of the pack in summoning up Franklin D. Roosevelt’s First 100 Days as role model for what was now needed. First 100 days? First 100 minutes is more like it. When does the man sleep?

So now we know what Change meant. It meant Change Everything, all the old corrosive rot of what was fundamentally, deeply un-American nonaction or wrong action or blind action or greedy action or brainless action or willful nonregulatory action or sneering, belligerent action, or fatally stupid action and on and on and on.

The thing is, old Karl Marx was right, after all. Capitalism would inevitably collapse because of its own greed and weight. It just took a little longer than communism to cave in, once it had a clear field.

What will emerge, I do not know — none of us know — but if Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism, as even I have come to understand, then a 47-year-old, tall, tan fellow named Barack Obama is already well into doing his patriotic best to save whatever it is we have now, and whatever it is we’re headed for.

I’ll even forgive him for his one act of cowardice so far: giving in to howls about a flag pin on that lapel. Yet the truth is that I myself am once again standing up when the band strikes up “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

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