It was the summer of 1974, I had just graduated high school and was looking forward to starting my first year of college in the fall, and I had been accepted into a special summer program called Torah Corps, sponsored by what was then known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism.
It was an intensive learning experience for a small group of students, all of whom had just completed 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. Most of us were from the United States, but the group also included several students from Canada.
The program was held at a lodge in Littleton, New Hampshire, and I well recall how we all gathered around the lone television set available to us on the night of August 8th to watch President Richard Nixon deliver a speech to the nation. We knew that he was in trouble over the Watergate scandal, but it still came as a tremendous shock when he uttered the words, “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.” We vocalized our sense of dismay at this unprecedented development collectively, through gasps and cries and the like. At least those of us who were Americans did so, in response to what we perceived to be a somber and tragic event.
But in a somewhat irreverent manner, one of the Canadians started to say, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…”
Reciting the first few words of our Mourner’s Kaddish did succeed in breaking some of the tension of the situation and injecting a note of humor. But many of us were not amused. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, and this was a time to shed a tear, not for Nixon himself but for the way in which he had tarnished the institution of the presidency and tried to undermine the democratic process.
And yet, somehow, we survived Watergate and moved forward as a nation. Just as we had survived the assassination of John F. Kennedy 11 years earlier. Apart from the loss of idealism and proliferation of conspiracy theories, some commentators started to point to historical parallels between the United States, characterized at that time by the intensifying social and political unrest of the 1960s, and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This especially was the case after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 at the hands of a Palestinian immigrant, Sirhan Sirhan, just two months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white supremacist, James Earl Ray.
The decades that followed certainly were not free from scandal. Ronald Reagan gave us Iran-Contra and Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about the Monica Lewinsky affair, narrowly avoiding a conviction and removal from office. But neither event seemed to threaten the viability of the American republic as a whole, and in between we witnessed the sudden collapse of the Communist bloc, first in Eastern Europe and culminating with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The end of European Communism came about so quickly that it seemed almost unbelievable. We celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming of freedom and democracy to Russia, and presumably to the other former Soviet republics (prematurely in some cases). Some wondered what would happen to the United States without its one-time adversary serving as a foil and contrast. And some even wondered if the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union might be followed by an equally sudden collapse of the West at a later date.
But for the most part, we emitted a collective sigh of relief at what some philosophers referred to as the end of history, that is, the triumph of liberal democracy.
But we also live with a historical consciousness that has been rare in human history. As the late Elizabeth Eisenstein explained, the ready availability of books, pamphlets, and periodicals, made possible by the printing revolution that began in the 15th century, eventually resulted in widespread awareness of the chronology of calendar time. (Calendars also were produced by printing.) Especially starting in the 19th century, more and more people came to recognize and understand their place in world history. As limited as the historical knowledge of the average American may be, everyone learns about the years 1492 and 1776. And we study history in grade school, and learn about our Civil War, and other events such as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, the scandals associated with the Ulysses S. Grant administration, and the Teapot Dome scandal during Warren G. Harding’s presidency.
At a time when we are witnessing an unprecedented number of scandals and improprieties associated with the White House, and the election of Donald J. Trump has been described by some as an extinction level event for American democracy, history may offer some solace by reminding us that our republic has weathered many storms in the past. And on this Fourth of July, at a time when many of us fear for the future of our country, I think it only fitting to recall the fact that we have survived the legal, moral, and ethical failings of more than a few of our elected officials, and that we have done so while expanding civil liberties, human rights, and the rule of law.
Taking the long view of American history gives us cause to be optimistic. At the same time, taking the much longer view of Jewish history can provide a somewhat different perspective, as we have seen the great nations and empires of the past come and go over the millennia. We, the Jewish people, have seen the rise and fall of great powers, and from that deep historical consciousness we know that nothing in the temporal realm lasts forever, not even the American republic that we love so much. And so, we cannot so easily dismiss the possibility that the end is nigh. Or the understanding that we just don’t know when the end might come, or if it might come as suddenly as it did for the Communist bloc and the USSR.
Once, long ago, I attended a lecture given by a major scholar and intellectual, and during the question and answer session, he was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future. His answer stuck with me, because it expresses my own sense of ambivalence. He said that on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays he was an optimist, and on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays he was a pessimist. Or was it the other way around?
Either way, for this Fourth of July, I think it only fitting to be an optimist, and to underscore the resilience of our republic. We have seen dark times in the past, and survived, and if we the people are willing and able, and with the help of divine providence, our great Enlightenment experiment will continue for generations to come.
May it be so.