Politics Monday: My Parents’ Democracy is Back

The more we and other democracies can show the world that we can deliver, not only for our people, but also for each other, the more we can refute the lie that authoritarian countries love to tell, that theirs is the better way to meet people’s fundamental needs and hopes. It’s on us to prove them wrong.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken
A Venezuelan newspaper ran this photo of six-month-old me and my young, optimistic parents in Caracas in 1955.

Moving abroad in the post-WWII world, Bob and Nan Amerson were steeped in liberal democracy. Their years at Macalester College (Dad, Class of ‘50; Mom, ‘49), like those of Walter Mondale (Class of ‘51), were deeply influenced by President Charles J. Turck’s commitment to internationalism, community service, and civic affairs. Fritz Mondale became a champion of liberal politics, while my parents expressed their civic spirit in their willingness to live abroad as America’s representatives, allowing the world to get to know our country through them. For a quarter century, my parents shared American culture, hospitality, arts, and traditions, believing in the vision so beautifully described by David Brooks.

Liberal democracy is based on a level of optimism, faith and a sense of security. It’s based on confidence in the humanistic project: that through conversation and encounter, we can deeply know each other across differences; that most people are seeking the good with different opinions about how to get there; that society is not a zero-sum war.

David Brooks, The New York Times

When my parents joined the US Foreign Service in 1955, they became part of, to borrow from President Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land:

the American army of diplomats and policy experts promoting the principles of a liberal, market-based system — individual freedom, the rule of law, strong enforcement of property rights and neutral arbitration of disputed, plus baseline levels of government accountability and competence — and the economic and political heft to promote these principles on a global scale.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land (get here on Audible, narrated by President Obama)

Around the world, American diplomats are carrying out that duty today, holding to the challenge laid forth by President Biden in his speech to Congress last week.

Can our democracy deliver on its promise that all of us — created equal in the image of God —have a chance to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility? Can our democracy deliver on the most pressing needs of our people? Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?

President Joe Biden

Our diplomats are counting on us to answer with a resounding yes.

Politics Monday: Truth, Empathy, Inspiration, and Results

The most relaxing 20 minutes of television watching I can recall in recent years happened on March 11, when President Joe Biden addressed the nation. After years of clenching my gut every time the former White House resident opened his mouth, sitting and listening to our president was downright blissful.That the topic was not a happy one — the pandemic — made my feeling all the more remarkable. Here was a grownup, speaking truth, showing empathy, and inspiring us.

Here is some of what I carried forward out of that evening, and the reflections of journalists I respect on the importance of this moment.

Telling the Truth

President Biden’s first national address began with the tragedy of the year-long siege of the Coronavirus pandemic: the losses; the pain; the economic and emotional hardship so many Americans are suffering. Biden showed us an index card he carries in a suit pocket with the number of COVID deaths. After a year of false promises, science denial, and the encouraging of careless behavior, our new president told us the truth.

We know what to do… tell the truth.

President Joe Biden

Showing Empathy

We have an empathetic president, one who overflows with it. We have a president that says “we” instead of “I,” giving words to the sorrow and frustration so many of us are feeling.

Jonathan Capehart, PBS NewsHour

He’s giving you the sense that he cares about people. It’s not like before, when what we had was, ‘It’s all about himself.’’

Mary Wilmes, Pennsylvanian shop owner quoted by Will Weissert, AP, Democrats Bank on Relief to Win Back the Wary Working Class

Engaging Us

We need to remember the government isn’t some foreign force in a distant capital. No. It’s us. All of us, turning our hands to common purpose.

President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021

I need you.

President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021

Inspiring Us

Finding light in the darkness is a very American thing to do. In fact, it may be the most American thing we do.

President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021

If we do our part, if we do this together, your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or your neighborhood and have a cookout and a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day.

President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021

The July 4 vision gives us something to look forward to after a long year of doing the same limited things over and over.

David Brooks, PBS NewsHour, March 12, 2020

Delivering Results

In December, the president-elect promised that 100 million Americans would be vaccinated in his first 100 days in office. By March 11, we were nearly there, my husband and I among the those vaccinated, and we have now surpassed that number. According to NPR, Americans have received more than 124 million doses of the vaccine, and we are just 62 days into the Biden administration.

Put trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important function, which is protecting the American people.

President Joe Biden, March 11, 2021

The president pledged that there would be enough vaccinations on hand by May 1 for all Americans. We believe him.

Imagine that. This is the America my father represented during his Foreign Service career.

Politics Monday: Homegrown Terror Begets Homegrown Propaganda

NOTE: Today, I am launching Politics Monday, following the PBS NewsHour model, kicking off my blog week with posts relating to government. My Wildcard Weekend post was a book review. Coming up: Travel Tuesday, Wellness Wednesday, Family Friday.

Inauguration night’s Celebrating America television program featured Tom Hanks’ earnest declamations about democracy, inspiring songs from Springsteen and Bon Jovi about better days ahead, and touching vignettes from first responders, children volunteers, and other pandemic heroes. It was both corny and moving, from Hanks’ Lincoln Memorial opening to Katy Perry’s Firework fireworks.

Something about the production felt both familiar and a little uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until I saw this headline in the British newspaper, The Independent, that I understood why.

Biden’s inauguration concert a safe, soothing tribute to anti-fascism.

The Independent

It made the hairs on my neck stand up.

American public relations was my father’s USIA work overseas

Celebrating America was exactly the type of program about American democracy that my father, Robert C. Amerson, would have shared with foreign audiences during his career with the United States Information Agency (USIA).

The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 authorized the State Department, USIA, and the Voice of America (VOA) to exercise “public diplomacy,” telling the truth, painting a convincing picture of America, and explaining our motives in a manner that combatted Russian propaganda. It was the Cold War, and America was vying with the Soviet Union for world domination.

Truth can be a powerful weapon.

Smith-Munda Act of 1948

But the same products were prohibited in the USA

USIA told good stories about our country, like a film about Wilma Rudolph, the Black track and field athlete who won three gold medals at the 1962 Rome Olympics during my father’s Italian assignment.

It seems a shame that Americans will never see it, but USIA’s enacting legislation prohibited the domestic dissemination of its materials.

Robert C. Amerson journal entry,

Aiming the propaganda machine toward our own citizens was not permitted. The chilling example of the Nazis controlling Germany by saturating the airwaves with Hitler’s demonic messaging was a cautionary tale, and America’s effort needed to stand in contrast to the USSR’s propaganda machine.

Apart from Freedom of Information law access, the prohibitions of the Smith-Mundt Act still stand.

And now we’re selling democracy to americans

The Trump administration took America on a steep slide down a slippery slope into rage-filled self-interest that culminated in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Giving his inauguration address standing where domestic terrorists had stood, President Biden included the word “democracy” ten times in his Inauguration Address — five times in just the first ten lines — and he closed by exhorting us to work together.

And together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear. Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. An American story of decency and dignity. Of love and of healing. Of greatness and of goodness.

President Joe Biden

The evening’s program continued these themes, said The Independent, “highlighting from their very inclusion just how fragile those ideals had become beneath Trump’s fraudulent thumbs.”

Much of the show resembled a public health warning about fascism.

The Independent

I am proud. I am concerned. I am conflicted.

American Leadership is Back

When we are not engaged, when we don’t lead, then… either some other country tries to take our place … or no one does, and then you get chaos. Either way, that does not serve the American people. Humility and confidence should be the flipside of America‘s leadership coin.

Antony Blinken, nominated by President Biden as Secretary of State, in remarks prepared for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Reported by Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee for the Associated Press.

Today, Joseph R. Biden, Jr., was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States as his predecessor enclosed himself in the Baroque pomp of his Florida club, a scant half-hour and an entire universe away from where I live. I am listening to the television as President Biden walks into the White House to the military marching song “Hail to the Chief.” All hail.

Twenty-eight years ago today, my infant daughter and I watched Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the emotion of promise flooding my chest. I remember the soaring optimism I felt the morning after Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008. Today, a Democrat is back in the Oval Office, and Democrats lead both houses of Congress. Promising optimism doesn’t suit this moment as much as gratitude.

As Timothy Snyder wrote so eloquently in The New York Times Magazine on January 17, 2021, our democracy was pushed to the very brink of failure by a president who wanted to be emperor. He made lies into common currency, befuddling anxious Americans into giving up on truth in favor of social media and turning from the rule of law to of the regime of myth.

But the dictator failed. The people spoke, The courts denied. The states ascertained. The Congress affirmed, and then impeached. Democracy has prevailed. The afternoon’s strongest beams glint off the white monuments in Washington DC in shining contrast to the mausoleum edifice of Mar-A-Lago, where deepening shadows surround a loser who thought he was king.

America has leadership back in the White House, and the world has a country once again engaged in global affairs.

My whole soul is in this, uniting America. We’ll press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.

President Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address