Rachel Sharansky Danziger

When America was actually great

On how low US politics have sunk from the decent, compassionate words that once brought her to tears

Back in the summer of 2008, we were newlyweds and road-tripping across the American Southwest. The radio was on, catching one local station after another. The sky spread above us in soft blues and dreamy clouds, kissing the horizons far away.

Everything was open and welcoming and wide. We chatted. We sat quietly. We basked in the breadth of it all.

It was a good time to be young.

Somewhere between New Mexico and California we caught Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

And let me tell you: Conservative as I was (and am), skeptical of Obama’s policies as I was (and am), when I listened to that speech on that radio somewhere in that vast brown land with the open skies above, I cried.

I stand here tonight, Obama said, because of the American promise. “Because for 232 years, at each moment when that promise was in jeopardy, ordinary men and women — students and soldiers, farmers and teachers, nurses and janitors — found the courage to keep it alive.”

And I cried, because the land itself seemed to echo these words. This boundless land that surrounded us and spread before us as we rode ahead, this vast land that represented hope and progress and promise for so many generations. This land, which, in that moment, as a black man was running for president, finally delivered.

Obama went on to speak of real people and their needs, and listed his policies, and it was as if his words captured the warmth of the sunlight around us and the vastness of the American countryside itself. He spoke of decency and caring and compassion, and his ideas rose far above the pettiness of daily life.

Obama expressed his honest respect for his defeated opponent (HRC) and for John McCain. “Let us agree,” he said, “that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain.”

And so, after all that, when Obama promised change, and the people chanted “Yes We Can,” and an old African-American woman in the crowd cried as the radio station interviewed her…. After all that, it didn’t matter at all that I am politically conservative. It didn’t matter at all that, had I been American, I would’ve voted McCain. I felt lighter, and happier, and somehow transformed. I felt as I do after Yom Kippur: as though my soul communed with something bigger than myself, and soared far far away into the sky, and came back down the better for it.

The land came alive with renewed promise, reflecting something of our own hopeful youth.

* * *

I cried, again, on November 4th of the same year, when I listened to John McCain’s concession speech on the radio. I was back in my beloved tiny Israel by then, far away from the vast plains of our magical road trip. But McCain’s words held the same broad vision that brought me to tears on August 28th.

“My friends,” he said, “we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly. A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him…”

Some people booed, then. But McCain silenced them, and spoke on.

In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving…

America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.

Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth…

My body was in Jerusalem as I listened. But my mind wasn’t.

My mind was on a Boston-bound ship, where John Winthrop spoke of a “city upon a hill.”

My mind was in a hall in Philadelphia, where one man after another signed bellow the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”

My mind was in a cemetery in Gettysburg, where an outstanding man said, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

My mind was outside a house in Arizona, where one old veteran of wars and governing and public service was talking of “the greatest nation on Earth,” and showing us what it means to be great.

“These are difficult times for our country,” McCain went on.

And I pledge to him [Obama] tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face. I urge all Americans … I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together… to leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.

* * *

I was young, then. Young, and somewhat naive, because I thought, “So this is what the American elections are like, and it is wonderful.”

Today, I know that that isn’t what the American elections are like, but only what they can be. This past year has hammered the distinction home quite well.

We are far away, today, from the mutual respect, graciousness, and decency of those speeches. We are far, far away from those words that rang like open roads and rolling fields and simple honor. We are far away from that moment when the young black senator from Illinois said, “One of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and each other’s patriotism.”

We are far, far away, and I am sad.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Matan.
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