Peter S. Canellos | National Perspective

Obama's American spirit could use some idealism

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
May 13, 2008

WASHINGTON - In a city full of people who can claim part of the "Reagan legacy," Peggy Noonan has a piece to herself. While others played roles in President Reagan's tax cuts or defense buildup, Noonan understood better than anyone the Gipper's special connection to America's mythic past.

She was his poetic speechwriter. On the night of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, she linked the work of the astronauts to the American spirit: "It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons." She even found a moving quote to honor those who "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" to "touch the face of God."

Noonan knows the American Dream is the wellspring of political power. She even sprinkled some verbal fairy dust on George H.W. Bush in writing his 1988 convention speech, in which he looked over America and saw "a thousand points of light."

Now Noonan, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, has an issue with Barack Obama. "Has he ever gotten misty-eyed over . . . the Wright Brothers and what kind of country allowed them to go off on their own and change everything?" she wrote late last month. "How about D-Day, or George Washington, or Henry Ford, or the losers and brigands who flocked to Sutter's Mill, who pushed their way west because there was gold in them thar hills? There's gold in that history."

The column sparked some blog blowback (Henry Ford? Wasn't he a racist?) and a sideshow controversy over NBC anchor Brian Williams's praise for Noonan at the same time as he criticized a New York Times report on gay newlyweds. But Obama might take notice: Noonan's images may be gauzy but her conclusion - "There's gold in that history" - is indisputable, at least in politics.

As Garry Wills and others have pointed out, Reagan didn't so much conjure up images of American's past as its movie-past, the uplifting motion pictures of the Depression and World War II. In those movies, cowboys brought decency and civilization to the West, wives stood by their husbands as they headed off to war, and good old-fashioned hard work overcame even the greatest class barriers.

That's the America that Americans like to remember - an idealized version of themselves. It would be churlish to point out that those films didn't often address barriers of race or ethnicity or that the good old-fashioned ingenuity celebrated in biopics of people like Thomas Edison wasn't exclusively American: A lower-class Scotsman named Alexander Fleming achieved the greatest medical breakthrough of the 20th century despite the British class system, and the inventor of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, was an Italian fascist.

Nonetheless, Noonan is right to stand in awe of the story of how two bicycle-shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, cracked the mystery of heavier-than-air flight that had eluded the most brilliant scientific minds of Europe. The notion that it could only happen in America may be debatable, but it's not a debate that many Americans would welcome.

Barack Obama has his own perspective on the American Dream, one that's far more realistic than idealistic. At an age when others of his generation were reading the patriotic children's books like the Childhood of Famous Americans series, Obama was finding ways to fit into mainstream America as a biracial child. The fact that he did, he says, is a tribute to the American Dream.

Recently, he has emphasized more familiar aspects of his background, celebrating his grandfather's service in World War II and his grandmother's work on the homefront.

And yet there are some indications, such as his reluctance to wear a flag pin, that he wants to teach America a lesson about real patriotism versus the easy patriotism of symbols, stories, and myths.

There's something admirable about any decision to inflict political damage on oneself to promote a greater truth. And he is surely right that the measure of one's patriotism isn't how loudly it's proclaimed. But where patriotism is concerned, truth and fiction are often blurred, and sometimes the deepest, most sincere patriotic feelings are summoned by myths. (Reagan himself would confuse what he saw in movies with what he actually experienced.)

As a sometime-admirer of Reagan, Obama knows the power of American stories. His own rise has a mythical aspect, as celebrated by his own writings. So he might do well to answer Noonan by saying that yes, he stands in awe of the Wright Brothers, George Washington, and the westward pioneers.

Obama is, after all, seeking to stand among them.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

"Has [Obama] ever gotten misty-eyed over . . . the Wright Brothers?" Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal.


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