Friday, June 14, 2013

Beneath the Dignity of a Great Nation

I really don't know — as I have said here before — when I developed my personal fascination with history, especially American history.

But whenever I did, I certainly reached the conclusion at roughly the same time that America was a great nation — or, at least, a great idea for a nation.

It isn't a perfect nation, but it has always aspired to be one. When its faults have been brought to the attention of its people as a whole, sincere efforts have usually been made to correct them. And I have always drawn inspiration from that.

There have been complaints, from time to time. The complaints are not always warranted, but sometimes they are — the FEMA foot–dragging after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans eight years ago comes to mind — but, for the most part, this nation and its leaders have honestly striven to keep promises to the people.

Again, there are exceptions to that, one of which has been on obvious public display in the last few months.

Barack Obama came here to Dallas in April to participate in the opening of the library dedicated to the presidency of his immediate predecessor. When that was over, he and his entourage traveled roughly 70 miles southwest of here to the town of West, Texas, which is near Waco, to mourn the deaths and injuries that were suffered in an explosion at a fertilizer plant.

(The plant, it is always worth mentioning, produced the kind of fertilizer that was used to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.)

Lots of people think it is a constitutional duty of the president to mourn with and to comfort Americans who have been affected by a disaster, but it isn't. You won't find a single word about it in the Constitution or its amendments. It's one of those things that has evolved over time.

"Though the non–administrative capacities of the commander–in–chief were not set out in the Constitution," wrote Dan Fastenberg in TIME two years ago, "the tradition of forging an intimate relationship with the American people goes all the way back to George Washington."

President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg, producing perhaps his most memorable speech as president. President Harding and two of his predecessors attended the dedication of Arlington National Cemetery.

In my lifetime, I can recall a few instances of presidential participation in moments of great sorrow. Ronald Reagan appeared at a ceremony honoring the astronauts who were lost in the Challenger explosion, greeted the family members, embraced some of them. Bill Clinton came to Oklahoma City (when I was living in nearby Norman) to share the grief over the bombing of the federal building there.

Less than a year into his presidency, George W. Bush comforted a grieving nation after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Obama has attempted to comfort Americans on several occasions since becoming president — at Fort Hood following the 2009 shootings, in Arizona following the shootings in 2011, in Boston earlier this year after the explosions at the annual marathon there.

The trip to West wasn't anything unusual.

But it is worth remembering the words he spoke that day — his pledge that the federal government would be there to help the people of that small town long after the attention it was receiving at the time had disappeared — in light of the decision by FEMA to deny additional funds to help West's recovery.

Now FEMA says it won't provide additional funds to the people of that small town.

FEMA may well be correct when it says that the death and destruction "is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration."

But the fact is that, when the president was here in April, he made a promise to the people of West. He didn't carry Texas in either of his presidential elections, but my memory is that West was glad he came to the memorial service to share the town's grief and grateful for his promise of continued support even when no one was paying attention anymore.

Can they be blamed for feeling abandoned by their government now?

When the president makes a promise to a constituency, that is a solemn oath — not all that different from the oath Obama has taken twice except that he didn't place his left hand on the Bible when he took it. A president's word is his bond with the people, and all the agencies in the government that are required to fulfill his promise are honor bound to do so.

Failing to do so is far beneath the dignity of a great nation.

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