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Ruins at the foot of the hill

January 24, 2010

As the State of the Union draws near, I’m struck by how everyone hopes for the same thing, yet no one expects it.  The President will attempt to sell it; spin masters will reach for it in cadence and verse and some of us will watch, with some remaining measure of hope.  But that most elusive of qualities; confidence, doesn’t make terms and will never negotiate. 

Confidence is an inescapable element of our American character, power and economy. Our kindness is transformed to magnanimity – by the action only confidence can rally, and by the obligation only the truly secure can embrace. No power, save Love has ever reached so far, embraced so many or taken a people so high – with promise left to spare. And yet, as every daughter can tell you – confidence cannot exist without pride. Pride requires accomplishment and recognition; Americans know that well or at least… we did.

Among the many quarters of American achievement, few are as inspiring as those we actually build. Through the trials and misfortunes of life we labor in their shadow and later celebrate in their glory, they stand ever vigil: a testament to and legacy of our endurance.

My grandparents pointed to the Golden Gate Bridge and said ‘we built that’! They, of course, built no part of it – but they paid for it, and it is (unmistakably) theirs. It has outlived them both (and will several fold), and it stands precisely where they placed it; a living witness to their contribution, an effigy to their innovation and limitless source of inestimable pride.

“What will your generation do?” That was their question– and the thinly veiled dare

What will we do?  We have, undoubtedly, done much. In our darkest hours, the ‘times that test men’s souls’; Americans don’t typically freeze on the decisions before them or fixate on the path that led them there. We look to the heavens – and build toward them. Today, I fear we look at our feet.

In addition to dark economic times, the wars, and government paralysis, a succession of missed opportunities and mishandled crisis have us (perhaps appropriately) dithering in self doubt. Katrina is a horrible scar across our landscape and confidence. Not only were lives and homes lost that day, but also the romantic (achievable) notion that our government had some extraordinary capacity.  America, the ‘can do’ nation; now lags behind the rest of the competing world in any substantive measure of progress, including education, environment, national transit (or affordable healthcare). Through such cascade failures; has the Shining City on a Hill become a memory among the ruins?

The question begs again, what will we do? Undoubtedly we will rise, but a reinvigorated America can’t be built on glib arrogance or false promises. We’re shaken as a people and the many Americans fortunate enough to have missed the 60s and 70’s have no frame of reference for overcoming this malaise; no elixir for this communicable form of depression.

But the enormity of American opportunity presents near limitless options. The will, the money, the labor, talent and optimism are all ripe for a generation defining project. Like the Golden Gate of my Grandparents generation, it should be a feat of engineering and make a substantive contribution to our progress (and recovery). It CAN be a step forward in the redemption of the American government and a renewed confidence in what we can achieve.

There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what’s right in America”, Bill Clinton.

Mr. President, a few ideas: 

  • A High Speed rail Corridor from Richmond, VA. to Manchester, N.H. (reducing  dependence on air travel, balancing real estate accessibility and traffic loads with a significant economic and environmental windfall (aren’t those rare).  
  • A Gargantuan Electrical Project (capable of meeting our growing needs) whether it’s hydro, tidal, nuclear or integrated suburban rooftop solar gardens – so long as it has significant impact on our energy production, sustainability and independence. Actually; let’s explore several? 
  • Suggestions? ( or comment..)   

The Colossus of Rhodes (shown at the top) toppled at the knees from an earthquake and the remains settled where they fell for over 800 years; a pleasant enough reminder I suppose of glory days… The story says that even in ruins; it was impressive beyond imagination. I can’t see our American future in the ruined aftermath of Katrina or the financial rubble along Wall Street; but I have no trouble spotting the dignity, values and indelible spirit that built our shining city… and will again.

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