American Democracy, Warts and All

USIA showcased democracy

My father, Robert C. Amerson, spent his Foreign Service career in the United States Information Agency, the Cold War organization that communicated US policy abroad and carried out international information and cultural programs. Among the American traditions showcased by Dad’s office every four years were Election Day in November, the announcement of the winner and the concession of the loser, and the inauguration in January of the newly elected president of the United States.

Diplomats represent democracy

Foreign Service officers in US Embassies around the globe have, for four years, faced the challenge of representing a country led by a self-centered, America-first media personality. Instead of drawing on alliances built up over years of diplomacy, President Trump has openly admired the trappings of power exhibited by democracy-squelching strongmen. His failure to address the coronavirus pandemic and his conspiracy theory laden presidential campaign contributed to a negative narrative of an America on the decline. His failure to concede his loss when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election and his continuing assertion that the election was stolen despite the courts’ finding no evidence of fraud, only added fuel to the fire.

Democracy warts and all

And then came January 6. The world watched aghast as a mob overran the US Capitol during Congress’s affirmation of Joe Biden as President Elect. The images of Americans pillaging the temple of democracy shocked our allies, and our enemies expressed satisfaction at the dying of our democracy. It seemed as if the American story was descending into irreparable chaos.

During his Senate confirmation hearings to be President Kennedy’s USIA director, famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow was asked if he intended to tell the bad about America along with the good. He replied, “If the bad is significant, it is going to be reported anyway. We must report it honestly, otherwise it will be distorted.” President John F. Kennedy echoed these words in a speech at the Voice of America, the United States’ international radio broadcaster: “You are obliged to tell our story in a truthful way, to tell it, as Oliver Cromwell said about his portrait, ‘Paint us with all our blemishes and warts.” 

Our warts were on full display on January 6.

Democracy withstood assault

However, Congress reconvened that same day amidst the terrorist debris and affirmed Joe Biden as President Elect, completing an election that truly tested America. Despite the pandemic and orchestrated decisiveness, more Americans than ever before voted in a process that has withstood legal scrutiny. The people have spoken. The courts have ruled. The states have certified. The Congress has affirmed. On January 20, President Joe Biden will take office. 

In America, it is the institution of democracy itself that wields the power when things go wrong. The world is watching as we get back on track. 

Is America losing its moral authority?

American diplomats who are the global face of the United States are struggling with how to demand human rights, democracy and rule of law abroad amid concerns overseas and criticism at home over the Trump administration’s strong arm response to the protests across the country.

Lara Jakes and Edward Wong, The New York Times

My father was one of those faces of the United States in Europe and Latin America during his career in public diplomacy during the Cold War. As part of the United States Information Agency, his job was to project America’s image overseas, when much about our country was misunderstood, and even distorted, by our adversaries.

Dad’s career began in 1955 Caracas, when a military dictator ruled Venezuela. As he wrote in his 1995 book How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, America’s support of President Marcos Pérez Jimenez was predicated on stability — preventing Communist inroads and protecting American business investments in that oil-rich country — but went against our country’s democratic ideals. Dad’s personal feelings bled through in his conversations with journalists and university professors who chafed under the oppressive Pérez Jimenez regime. The dictator’s eventual flight into exile is the first story in my memoir-in-progress, When the Dictator Flew Over Our House.

Dad presented facets and facts about our country to counterbalance negative stereotypes. Sometimes, the stereotypes were lifted right off American television. Southern police officers turning fire hoses on civil rights protesters were offset by interracial jazz groups, candid conversations by leading American writers and other cultural leaders took on special importance.

From Minneapolis, Minnesota, arrived accompanied by his wife and his daughter Jane [yeah, the baby trumped the mommy in getting named here] Mr. Robert Amerson, who will work at the Embassy of the United States of America as Information Manager. For the distinguished travelers, we give our cordial greetings of welcome.

It may well be that the example of this nation will be more important than its dollars or its words.

Edward R. Murrow, USIA Director, US Senate confirmation hearing, 1961

American diplomats today are charged with carrying out the challenging assignment of holding a mirror up to this country while proclaiming the tenets of democracy. What would my father have said when it was his country’s own president that hid in his fortified compound and threatened to deploy the military against peacefully protesting citizens?

The White House is now so heavily fortified that it resembles the monarchical palaces or authoritarian compounds of regimes in faraway lands …

Matt Zapotosky, The Washington Post

The Trump White House called in the National Guard, Custom and Border Protection, Immigration and Custom Enforcement, and the Bureau of Prisons, and active duty military were put on standby in response to the Washington DC protests. On June 1, smoke, tear gas, pepper balls, and, according to protesters, rubber bullets, were used to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square across from the White House just before President Trump’s bible photo opportunity.

The use of the military to violently disperse peaceful protesters in front of the White House was the biggest gift we could possibly have given to Putin or Xi Jinping and to every other dictator around the world who delights in arguing that America’s government is no different than theirs.

Congressman Tom Malinowski, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

The Trump administration has been a godsend for Xi, if only in making him seem like a reasonable leader.

Steven Lee Meyers, The New York Times

And yet, American diplomats continue to hold up the values of our country, to demonstrate that is it the people, not one president, who are America’s keepers.

We will not try to hide our painful struggle, and instead believe that on his public debate will help us to emerge better and stronger.

US Embassy, Ankara, Turkey

May we continue to hold our country in our hands, protecting it from abuse by the ignorant bully in the White House.

American people are using our voices to demand change, and that is something that could not happen in so many countries where I served.

Ambassador Dana Shell Smith, former career diplomat

We must insist on change. Hourly. Daily. Weekly. Until we have restored the White House to thoughtful, intelligent, alliance-building leadership once again.