We the People of the United States of America have appeared to be a lot less united over the past many years. More and more it seems that we can agree on almost nothing. We apparently can’t even agree as to whether or not the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young man carrying Skittles and a can of iced tea, is a tragedy, regardless of the circumstances that lead up to it. What has become of us? Actually, the more frightening question is “What are we becoming?”
Last week I stood before the incomparable original manuscript of the United States Constitution and read the words in the preamble that began this column. I thought of the men who wrote it — how they bickered and fought, and occasionally resorted to violence in the creation of this more perfect union. Now I honestly wonder what they would think of us today. Despite the bickering, they were almost exclusively rich men acting outside of their own best interests. Rather than working to protect what was theirs, they worked to create a nation. It seems fewer among us are willing to do that today.
While in Washington, DC, Michelle and I took a public tour of the Capitol. The tour was restricted to a relatively small area within the expansive building, but it was fascinating. I can’t imagine how anyone would ever tire of looking up into the rotunda. During the tour, two things struck me. First, the people who planned that building had absolutely no doubt this was going to be a great nation with better days yet to come. Second, the somewhat cynical humor of our tour guide was not only entertaining; it was also demonstrative that this is still a free country. In more than a few other countries, he probably would have been shot for his dark humor involving Members of Congress, some of whom were in offices just yards away.
When we left for DC, a good friend sent an email asking, mostly in jest, if I could let Congress know that they are doing everything wrong by the Constitution. On Monday night, Michelle and I walked with one Member of Congress across Independence Avenue from the House office buildings to the Capitol to watch the last vote of the evening from the House chambers gallery. On the way, we encountered what appeared to be a homeless man standing with a sign protesting something Congress was doing. The Congressman stopped, touched the man’s hand and asked, “How are you this evening, sir?” As we walked on, the Congressman told me the man is out there nearly every day and, little by little, he’s learning the man’s story. To me, it was a remarkable moment. The Congressman actually cared about that man — a person who was no doubt invisible to the thousands of tourists who had passed him that day. I am ashamed to say that I noticed him when we went on our tour earlier that day, but I didn’t stop to greet him. I didn’t touch his hand.
We watched the last vote of the evening at 7 p.m. from the House gallery. From my vantage point, I saw that all of the members of Congress — Independent, Republican and Democrat — did exactly what they should have done according to the Constitution. They represented, to the best of their ability as they saw it, the people who voted for them. The problem, of course, is the subjective phrase “the best of their ability as they saw it”. Given the approval rating of Congress, we the people are not seeing eye-to-eye with our congressional representatives. But then again, why should we expect that when we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on much of anything with anyone outside of increasingly narrowly defined groups?
I’m not going to defend Congress, except to say that there is no way to make everyone happy and I sure as heck wouldn’t want to do that job. In the 10 years that I’ve been writing for this newspaper, I’ve noticed that communication has become more of a challenge. More and more, I have to be careful about what I say to avoid accidentally offending someone, but it is increasingly a losing game. There is almost nothing I can write that won’t involve a subject that some people will cheer and others will jeer.
Our experiment in democracy is messy by design. The United States was built on disagreement and occasional rancor. We are still working to “form a more perfect Union, to establish Justice, to ensure domestic Tranquility, to provide for the common defence, to promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Washington, DC is a beautiful city that was built on dreams and ideals that we sometimes forget about today. If you get a chance to go, please do. See the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Visit the memorials to great presidents and to those who gave their last full measure of devotion to all of us. Feel pride in our nation again — a nation created by people (both men and women) who acted against their own self-interest to help form a more perfect union.
Disagreement is part of the package, but let’s not forget that when push comes to shove we are still a union. And perhaps, we could try adding a little compassion while remembering to promote the general Welfare. Last week, I watched a Member of Congress do just that outside of the Capitol.