Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961
President Kennedy’s words nearly 60 years ago inspired a generation of Americans, who themselves were standing on the shoulders of the Greatest Generation, who came of age during the Great Depression and served their country in World War II. Americans of the prior generation had experienced the carnage of World War I.
According to vocabulary.com, the word “civics” is an American English invention from the Latin, civicus “of a citizen.”
Civics is the rights and responsibilities “of a citizen.” Americans like to lean into our rights — our freedom to gather, to express, to pursue happiness — a whole lot more than honor our responsibilities— to vote, to serve on juries, to pay taxes. About half of eligible voters turned out in 2016. According to a 2007 study by the National Center for State Courts, only 15 percent of voters are ever called to jury duty, and only 5 percent of those actually serve. [HIGH FIVE IF YOU HAVE!! I served twice in Albany, NY, both good experiences.]
Today, the global pandemic is calling forth our civic duty in a much simpler and more profound way. What we are being asked to do for our country is wear a mask.
According to Wikipedia, civics is about behavior affecting other citizens. Wearing a mask protects others from us. All of us are others. All of others are us.
Compared to living in the dark for years as the citizens of Londoners did during the Blitz, wearing a mask is pretty light stuff. Bearing up under nightly bombing assaults called out the British “stiff upper lip.” In her recent article in The Palm Beach Post, reporter Jan Tuckhill featured local author Jill Rose. Rose, whose mother was Winston Churchill’s nurse and whose letters to the Prime Minister are now Rose’s book, Nursing Churchill, wonders if the English “keep calm and carry on” could help Americans call forth the character we need.
Merkel represents everything Trump loathes: globalism, multilateralism, international law.
Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the German Marshall Fund
She is also a powerful woman and a quantum physicist —a female powerhouse who won’t quietly take his bad behavior, and, worse yet, a scientist. In fact, she may actually be a stable genius.
Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw troops plays right into Russia’s goal of destabilizing the West. With Britain’s exit from the European Union, a less robust military presence in the EU’s most influential country represents a critical injury to the trans-Atlantic alliance that has defined the post-WWII era.
Furthermore, the presence of American troops in Germany is not to defend that country, but part of an overall collective stability and security for Europe as a whole and a critical part of America’s global military footprint.
The threats posed by Russia have not lessened, and we believe that signs of a weakened US commitment to NATO will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism.
Congressman Mac Thornberry, House Armed Services Committee, R-Texas
Indeed, the revelation this week that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban for attacking American troops in Afghanistan is but the latest evidence that Russia continues to be our enemy.
During his Foreign Service career during the Cold War, my father, Robert C. Amerson, studied NATO. It was part of his 1960-61 year at the Bologna Center, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His class cohort included both American graduate students and career government professionals. A handful were American foreign service officers; the rest were an international mix. Crucial information and relationships were cemented during the year.
My father’s year at the Bologna Center expanded across Europe that spring when the class traveled to Paris to visit the recently re-located headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO.
Barely a dozen years old, NATO had grown out of post-war economic and security needs among the nations of Western Europe. Washington viewed an economically strong and rearmed Europe as a key Cold War bulwark against communist expansion. The Soviet control of East Germany and the Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia gave rise to real concerns that Western Europe would be similarly co-opted.
The Marshall Plan addressed economic development with a massive influx of aid and the NATO agreement addressed the region’s collective security — members were sworn to consider an attack upon one as an attack upon all. NATO put the United States on the side of Western Europe, while the Soviets held the East under the Warsaw Treaty.
Italy’s significant communist party gave its membership in NATO strategic importance. The United States became concerned that a winning leftist coalition would pull Italy into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. It was rumored that the new Central Intelligence Agency had intervened to support the pro-American Christian Democrats against the pro-Moscow Socialist Democrats. A monumental anti-Communist letter-writing campaign promoted from the pulpit of Italian-American Catholic Churches and the American-backed coalition took the election.
Imagine the conversations in Dad’s course on Soviet History as the Bolognese professor laid out these issues. How freeing it was for him to be a student and not a spokesperson for a year.
WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE & OTHER TRUE STORIES, Jane Kelly Amerson Lopez (work in progress)
The Poles have even offered to name the facility Fort Trump.
Marc Thiessen, The Washington Post
Meanwhile, the European Union is keeping its doors closed to Americans. It’s less about troops and more about the raging coronavirus pandemic in the United State, but, either way, this is all about Trump’s lack of leadership.
The governor of my state of Florida, Ron DeSantis, is “counting on people to do the right thing” about social distancing and wearing masks to reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. In the next breath, he shrugs off the young crowds at the bars, saying “people are going to do what they’re going to do.”
Set the clock to wake up early. Have your exercise clothes ready. Have more fresh fruit than less processed snacks at the ready. Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. It’s a good way to structure your own behavior.
Things get sticker when the impact of our individual behavior spills out into our community. Sometimes, a physical reminder of the right thing helps reinforce the behavior, like placing doggie poop stations at strategic intervals in my community. (The Lopez Commission imposed mask-wearing on Kumba to help him resist over-reacting to other dogs. It’s working. He’s a dear.0
Suggestions are not enough when it comes to keeping society safe. Regulations ensure that houses in Florida are built to withstand hurricanes or storm surge. Laws have established speed limits, seatbelts, and airbags to make driving safer. When it’s a matter of public health, national security, or other overarching principle, the people we elect to represent us in government step in for the collective good.
Absent any action from the governor, the Palm Beach County Commission has finally mandated masks. The Palm Beach Post had urged them to do so in this editorial that ran the day before the vote.
No, this is not an overreach by the government. No, it’s not unconstitutional. And no, it’s not a question of your personal rights being taken away. It’s well-established law that elected officials have the right – no, the responsibility – to take actions to protect public health.
The Palm Beach Post
The Commission made doing the right thing easier. With our case numbers leaping ahead of most states, you know that my family is sticking with masks if we have to interact with the world. I have been transforming pillow covers into masks. It takes me a long time but is comforting, and I can see why knitting, darning, sewing have long been idle time activities. (Another weight management strategy: when your hands are busy, you’re not using them for snacks!)
Compliance isn’t universal, and not wearing a mask won’t land you in jail, although it carries a fine.
Four days after the Commission’s ruling, scores of partying 20-somethings made for an alarming headline: PANDEMIC’S YOUTH EMBRACE MYTHS AS CASES SKYROCKET.
“I think it’s a hoax, and I think that it’s just the flu on steroids.” She then giggled and walked into the restaurant without a mask covering her mouth and nose.
John Pacenti, The Palm Beach Post
These people are part of Generation Z, the age group that mobilized for gun reform after the Parkland shooting, and that have more recently marched in Black Lives Matter protests. I choose to believe that most of these young people, like us old people, believe in collective behavior for the common good. We’re just at home doing the right thing while the media interviews the partiers.
Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefing, usually set in the State Capitol in Albany, took place today in Brooklyn, where his message was to encourage New Yorkers to wear a mask and to get tested at one of the 700 sites now available throughout New York State. But, he said, he could not get this message out alone.
Government cannot do this.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York State
He clarified. He could tell people to stay home, to wear masks, to socially distance.
My job throughout this pandemic has been to communicate, to give people the facts.
The consistent repetition of all the facts builds trust, and trust builds compliance. Even among New Yorkers. But, Cuomo said, government cannot force the behavior, especially by 19 million New Yorkers, he said.
Today, he admitted he needs help in communication. His three daughters, isolated together with him in the Governor’s Mansion a couple of blocks from the Empire State Plaza, my old stomping grounds, have critiqued his performance. One said he needed more “edge.” Another said he wasn’t “cool” enough.
I disagree. I think I’m cool. But when you’re in Brooklyn and you want to talk to this community, you need really cool people from this community like Rosie Perez and Chris Rock.
Enter star power, celebrities “from the block” Rosie Perez and Chris Rock, speaking to their fellow Brooklynites about “doing the right thing.” Perez encouraged New Yorkers to “stand up” for themselves and for others by getting tested and wearing a mask. Rock suggested that testing be a festive occasion. Take the posse! Take the family! But get tested, as he did this morning on his way to the briefing. He couldn’t resist adding that he barely passed with a 65.
Perez and Rock, who will also be doing PSAs, were practically gushing in their remarks about Governor Cuomo.
Our governor is a rock star. He makes me proud to be from New York.
Rock prefaced his remarks by saying that Cuomo has brought him calm every day. And then he added:
You bring me joy every day.
Imagine that: an elected official who brings joy during the Coronavirus pandemic. By telling the truth. Consistently. Calmly. Sticking with the facts. Taking responsibility. Sharing the limelight. Taking actions, like partnering with the health care industry to provide better care of at-risk, poor people. Like getting masks and PPE to emergency workers, to essential workers. Like issuing an executive order that enables stores to prohibit the entry of unmasked persons.
It was almost as if the two stars were discovering the good in government.
Trump and McConnell have worn Americans down so far that we are beginning to expect nothing good to come out of Washington, I think. Thank God for governors, whose approval ratings over the past three months have soared, maybe especially in contrast to the tanking White House numbers. And for mayors, and county leaders, and boards of commissioners, and school boards, and Homeowners Association boards, all community members willing to be the target of the never-content populace because someone needs to get things done for us.
Yes, government employees are essential workers. Public hospital nurses, aides, cleaners. Police officers. Transit workers. Teachers. Road crews. Building code enforcers. OSHA enforcers. And the people doing what I used to do in the NYS Budget Office, assessing how much less revenue city, county, and state governments will have this year and how they are going to keep producing the critical infrastructure to get us through the pandemic. Because they have to.
I hope when this is all over that you’re still with the government.
I am spitting mad that the people making decisions for Americans — in the government, who we have elected to help us live our lives — are opening the doors to the resumption of economic activity without knowing — through widespread community testing and contact tracing, none of which are even discussed — what we are likely to face. Remember that trust exercise in which one person is blindfolded and told to fall back into the arms of others? It’s like that, only this time everyone is blindfolded.
The callous disregard is rending our county, our state, our country into shreds.
Do you honestly think that the governor would take the risk with the health of the entire state by opening hair salons and nail salons without any scientific input?
Hal Valeche, Palm Beach County Commissioner
We are at risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory here.
Lake Worth Beach Commissioner Omari Hardy
Send more people back to job sites, restaurants and retail stores before we have a proper handle on things, i.e. testing and will get sick more people will die.
The Cold War — during which my father served in the Foreign Service — had its share of characters, and none more colorful than Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. He (and his wife and children!) traveled to the United States in a “goodwill” tour in the fall of 1959. He was the first Soviet premier to vist our country.
Khrushchev said he had been “curious to have a look at America” when he met with a group of visiting American governors in July. In September, he traveled to Washington, DC, New York, California, Iowa, and Pennsylvania before returning to meet with President Eisenhower at Camp David. Both countries hoped that the visit would help thaw Cold War tensions.
Earlier in 1959, Khrushchev’s path crossed with Eisenhower’s Vice President, Richard Nixon, who traveled to Moscow for the opening of the American National Exhibition of scientific and technological experiments. This first-time color footage of some of ensuing debate over the merits of American capitalism and Soviet communism reflects a much lighter tenor to the countries’ relationship.
Two years later, Nixon would have lost his presidential bid, and Khrushchev would be meeting with a new president, John F. Kennedy, in Vienna. My father, who was on his way to serve as Press Attaché at the American Embassy in Rome, got the nod to work the press tent at the Vienna Summit, coordinating America’s message to the globe about this important juncture in the Cold War. Would the thaw that Einsenhower hoped for continue?
My mother, sister, and I accompanied my father to Vienna from our then-home in Bologna. All I remember is standing on a large, tree-covered boulevard and looking up a two men on a balcony. One of them was Kennedy. Alas, I cannot find that stock footage. Perhaps I dreamed it up.
It’s staying in the book (WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE–AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR) . Such are memoirs.
… and also Bob and Nancy Amerson. Mom met Pope John XXIII two years before Jackie Kennedy did. Jack Kennedy did not get to the Vatican until the summer of 1963, by which time Pope John XXIII had died; the President met with Pope Paul VI.
Both of the Kennedy visits were organized by my father. And Mom’s meeting was because of Dad’s work with the American Embassy.
Here’s an exerpt about Mom’s meeting from a chapter in the memoir I am completing, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE: AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR.
]Dad was posted to the United States Information Agency branch office in Milan, Italy in December, 1959. The American Embassy, of which Dad’s operation was part, was 350 miles south in Rome. When Dad had meetings there in the spring of 1960, Mom went along. My sister Susie and I were looked after by our live-in maid, Maria Pia.]
Dad had a two days of meetings at the Embassy in Rome the following week, and Mom took the train down with him for some all-too-rare alone time. She luxuriated in the pleasure of walking at her own pace, browsing the chic shop windows on Via Condotti. She hopped on a bus if one came by, but otherwise wandered through the Forum and the burnt Sienna alleyways of Trastevere, downing a quick cappuccino midmorning while standing at the bar like everyone else, chewing on a plain roll. She didn’t want to risk a tastier meal that would have included garlic. She had an afternoon date with the Pope.
When Dad showed her the two tickets to the Vatican — gifts from the editor of Milan’s leading newspaper, Il Tempo — Mom was cautious. Was it right for barely practicing Protestants to take such coveted spots away from devoted Catholics? Dad was assured by his newspaper colleague that all were welcome at the papal audience. When Dad’s Embassy meetings conflicted with the event, Dad’s boss, Branch PAO (Public Affairs Officer) Max Kraus, snapped up the ticket.
By noon, Mom was back at the hotel to change into her long-sleeved black dress and a veil she’d bought for the occasion. She draped it over her head; it felt like putting on a costume at for a modern dance performance. A very pious costume.
She met the PAO in front of the Vatican where they joined a group of about 50 people. They were herded through a series of rooms, finally dead-ending at the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall. Mom and Max, the lapsed Presbyterian and the Jew, lined up against the walls and waited. She adjusted her veil.
Pope John XXIII entered without ceremony to muted clapping. He made his way around the room, pausing to speak with each person. Mom watched the protocol — head down; genuflect; kiss the ring. Non-Catholics could shake the hand, but no one had done so before the Pope stopped in front of her. She dropped her head, sensing before seeing the hand being offered to her. The Pope smiled, a gentle soul. Shaking his hand felt like the most natural thing in the world.
“Nancy Amerson, Ambasciata Americana.” American Embassy, Mom said.
“Molto bene,” Pope John XXIII said. Very nice.
The Pope extended his hand to Max. As the diplomat shook it, he added a few words expressing the Embassy’s gratitude about a recent Vatican pro-American op-ed piece. As the group was ushered back out into the streets of Rome, Mom began composing her letter home. They’d never believe it. And she would send the veil to Fina [our maid in Caracas], now working for family friends in Caracas. Imagine, having something blessed by a Pope.”
Check out how closely Mom followed protocol. Here’s Jackie two years later.
Dad organized both meetings but stayed out of camera range. His duties as Press Attaché, American Embassy, Rome were pretty heady stuff for a South Dakota farm boy. I’ll share more from the memoir soon….
I’m happy to be following a fellow blogger who is a Foreign Service Officer. She connected with me yesterday to say that she got her government start at the Voice of America, after serving in the Peace Corps in Macedonia. She’s been posted to our embassies and consular offices in Uzbekistan and Australia, and she is on her way to Mexico. Her clear and candid writing brings us beyond the headlines and behind the scenes to experience who this diplomat is and how she carries out her life as she represents us abroad.
“I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too …”
“…This is my third time studying at FSI. I was there full-time for nearly a year from the time I joined the Department in mid-2014. I did A-100 (the introductory course for all new diplomats as they come in), then six months of Russian, followed by area studies, ConGen, and various other courses before departing for my first tour in Tashkent in May 2015. I also came back in mid-2017 before my second tour in Canberra to take political and economic tradecraft training. Last month I hit 14 total years of federal service, and I have to say that never in my career have I had as much excellent training as the State Department provides. It is truly an incredible opportunity to be paid to assemble the skills you need to be better at your job.
When Dad was hired by USIA in 1956 to work at our Embassy in Caracas, his Spanish-language proficiency was not tested. America was in good hands, however: Dad was born, as Mom said, with languages on his lips, and his summers in Mexico during his journalism studies at Macalester College had given him a strong base. He’d teach himself Italian via his Caraqueño barber before being posted to Italy, and he learned Portuguese via tape during his commute when his responsibilities included Brazil while we were in Washington, DC. Italian and Spanish remained in-family code for the rest of his life.
Where he did feel at sea, however, was filling the role of “diplomat.” He reflected on that concern in his book about serving as Press Attaché in Caracas, How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, recounting his feelings during his first day on the job. It was July 4, 1956, at the Ambassador’s annual Fourth of July reception for the who’s who of Venezuelan diplomatic relations:
“Back home [on the farm in South Dakota], ask anybody to associate a descriptive word with “diplomat,” and you would most likely hear “elite” or “striped pants” or something similar. All I had ever read about the US Foreign Service suggested that American diplomacy traditionally meant Eastern Establishment, professional practitioners trained at exclusive prep schools and Ivy League universities. People born to the social graces, accustomed to cocktail parties and big receptions. One simply assumed that those assigned abroad to an American embassy personified — or should — years of applied preparation: mature men truly educated on the major aspects of our own history and culture; conversant with the most erudite thinking of our greatest institutions; skilled in negotiation and able to articulate all this fluently in the language of the host country.
Instead, here was I, expected to assume duties tomorrow at Press Attaché and Information Officer, American Embassy, Caracas, Venezuela — after only two months of practical orientation in Washington, preceded by five years of corporate public relations, a BA from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, and roots reaching all the way back to a one-room school on the prairies of South Dakota. Not exactly elite.“
His start may not have been elite, but Dad had what Eisenhower was looking for when he created USIA in 1953 to help project America’s image overseas and deal with the public aspects of diplomacy. Augmenting VOA direct broadcasts, USIA officers would handle cultural programs as well as placement in foreign media of information favoring US interests. Dad wrote:
“Word got around regarding opportunities for employment overseas. Hundreds of us with modest professional experience in fields of communication — men and women who had never considered working as civilians for the government, but who had developed deep interests in international relations — found ourselves querying Washington about this new line of “foreign service” work. Not that many of us aspired to instant conversion into polished diplomats … Nevertheless, amazingly, Washington seemed hungry. Overseas employment became an imminent reality.”
Dad worked for USIA from 1955 to 1979, serving in Caracas, Milan, Bologna, Rome, Bogotá, Washington DC, Madrid, and Rome (again!). He rose through the ranks from Press Attaché in Venezuela and Italy; Director of USIS in Colombia; Public Affairs Advisor to the Latin American Bureau of the Department of State; Assistant Director of USIA for Latin America; and Public Affairs Officer in Spain and Italy. His final position was as the Murrow Fellow in Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
The farm boy became a professor at one of those Ivy League schools of diplomacy.
My father’s Foreign Service agency, the United States Information Agency (USIA), was established by President Eisenhower in the 1953 to spread the gospel of American democracy. The Voice of America, established during WWII, became one of USIA’s mouthpieces.
Dad’s first assignment (1955) was Press Attaché at the American Embassy in Caracas, where he garnered an active US presence in the Venezuelan newspapers and television programming with pro-American articles and programs. He made many good friends among the local press and radio people in producing the television program he’d created for USIA, Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro, Venezuela Looks to the Future. The Embassy lending-library opened the door to free access to American books. The bi-national Centro Cultural had a rich schedule of cultural programming including performances and talks by American cultural icons: Nat King Cole, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana; Aaron Copeland; Louis Armstrong; Woody Herman.
In 1958, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic flew down for a May 1 concert at Central University, where they played the Venezuelan national anthem with appropriate emotion in counterpoint to the May Day labor union march downtown. Dad got a kick out of watching Lennie work his renowned charm at a press conference, with Dad doing the interpreting. The headlines in the local newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.”
Our families back in the States couldn’t view these materials due to a Cold War-era prohibition on disseminating government information produced for foreign audiences inside the United States. Within the US, it was propaganda; outside, it was information.
It was only in 2013 that President Obama signed the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act repeal of such prohibition into law. When the repeal took effect, Americans could access radio and TV programs designed for non-U.S. audiences, such as those produced by Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting. They all work under the oversight of the US Agency for Global Media, USIA’s current incarnation. It’s mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Sounds like Dad’s whole career.
Perhaps it is now a uniquely appropriate time to seek out news that represents “America, not any single segment of American society, …. and … a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.” That’s from the Voice of America’s mission statement. And, if that’s propaganda, I’ll take it.