The way we were: Goodbye to all that?

(New York City) This city was diverse before diversity was cool. It embodies the Melting Pot. It was what Emma Lazarus was seeing when she penned those immortal words that adorn the Lady with the Lamp in the city’s harbor. It is all about those “teeming masses yearning to be free”.

Today I followed what has been an unvarying ritual through all of the decades I have loved this city. Rise early, don a sturdy pair of shoes, depart the stereotypical Mid-Town hotel and walk south sixty blocks to the Staten Island Ferry.

The journey is a people watchers Paradise; at least ten thousand will pass you by and jostle for space on crowded sidewalks. They are of every background imaginable, and they engage in commerce of infinite variety. They are Americans. One’s overall impression of New York City is of tremendous energy and vitality.

On these streets you can also encounter some of the most stirring moments in American History.

At the foot of Manhattan not far from Wall Street- that epicenter of World Capitalism- you can visit the church where President George Washington worshiped when New York was the infant nation’s first Capital. His pew is still reserved. In more recent times the church served as a place of rest and recovery for the exhausted First Responders who were battling the flames and choking dust around the nearby World Trade Center, a scene of carnage and horror on 9/11.

Today throngs of tourists visit the Ground Zero Memorial and look up in awe at the New World Trade Center- a rising Paean to the resilience of the American Spirit.

A little North one finds the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Cooper Union Address. Not a museum, but still a much used auditorium, Cooper Union is quiet this morning- not a tourist in sight. It is possible to surreptitiously slip past the distracted old gentleman on the front desk, enter the empty Hall, imagine Lincoln at the podium, take a seat at the back and read the remarkable speech that in February of 1860 more than any other launched the rumpled prairie lawyer into the consciousness of a nation aching for leadership in a time of danger and disunion.

Not far away on 20th street is the boyhood home of Theodore Roosevelt. The Park Ranger who leads a tour of the house for just six people worries that it doesn’t have more visitors. A lasting impression are the many books voraciously read by the constantly bed-ridden boy, and the small exercise room – weights, parallel bars- where the sickly “Teddie” relentlessly and painfully drove himself to build his frail body- expand his chest to free the growth of his asthmatic lungs- and thereby create a life of vigor that even his family believed never could be his. The books he read- like the ones he later wrote- passionately celebrated grit, determination, character, and will – virtues that were so integral to the American Story his life embodied.

A final item catches the eye: a remarkable photograph of the seven year old Roosevelt with his younger brother looking down from the balcony of his grandfather’s nearby house upon the funeral cortege of Abraham Lincoln moving up Broadway in solemn procession.

Ironically in making his case for re-election President Obama has boldly wrapped himself in the mantle of both Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. With jaw dropping arrogance he suggests that what these iconic Republicans – half the population of Mount Rushmore- were all about is what he is all about- only in a new improved version.

Presiding over the worst economy since the Great Depression, metastasizing deficits, soaring national debt, entitlements on suicide watch, exploding food stamps, disability, and general dependency rolls, downgraded credit ratings, historic numbers of unemployed, underemployed and too “discouraged” to be employed, a worn-out military and defense infrastructure under assault from its own government; a foreign policy that shouts to friend and foe alike “We’re Heading For The Exits, Folks”, counts the days till we can openly abandon Israel to the tender mercies of a nuclear Iran , calls a murdered ambassador, and embassies under siege from Tunisia to Indonesia a “bump in the road”, and yearns for the better world where all these annoying problems can be handed over to the assorted tyrants, terrorists, racists, and kleptocrats collectively known as the United Nations, Obama revels in the Democratic Convention chants of “Four More Years” and solemnly summons the American people to “Stay the Course” because there is “more to be done”, and he “needs time” to complete his “historic mission”.

Astoundingly- if polls are to be believed- this gravity defying strategy might actually succeed.

If indeed the fate of the nation is “Four More Years”-“What you see is what you’ve got”- then what does that say about us?

If the great De Tocqueville were recalled to life to write a sequel to his classic Democracy in America, what would he see, what would he say? Would he look in vain for those bedrock characteristics of American greatness that he described so long ago? Would he tell us that the “Way We Were” is no more? Might he echo the words of Robert Graves contemplating the cataclysm that was “The War to End All Wars”: “Goodbye to All That”.

In another perilous hour when the fate of the West hung in the balance Winston Churchill said “Events are in the Saddle….The Terrible Ifs Accumulate”.

Come what may, November 6th will provide answers. An anxious nation holds its breath and waits, haunted by thoughts of children and grandchildren who one day may turn to us and ask “where were you when they stole the Dream and our Future slipped away?”


William Moloney is former Colorado Education Commissioner and a Centennial Institute Fellow. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.

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