Two days before the last Thanksgiving of the century, I am at the Waldorf-Astoria, natty in my tuxedo, honoring several very brave foreign journalists when one of them, a Pakistani newspaper editor, says something we all need to hear: "You Americans do not know fear." Thank God for that, I say to myself. Thank God for America.
How did this miracle happen? I know the facts, but still I cannot explain it. I go back, time after time, to the Founding Fathers and wonder about these men. Who can explain so much genius in one place at one time? Their Constitution has endured. Their First Amendment still stuns. Give it a moment's thought and you cannot stop thinking about it.
The Pakistani is joined by reporters from Colombia, Kosovo and, via a photo, Jesus Joel Diaz Hernandez, jailed by Fidel Castro for starting an independent news agency. At one of these dinners four years ago, Veronica Guerin of Ireland was honored for her stories on the Irish underworld. Months later, she was murdered. I remember her vaguely. I remember her little boy much better.
Thanksgiving moves me like no other holiday. As yet, it is unpolluted by commercialism. It is straightforward, simple. Even the customary food--turkey--is plain and utilitarian. It does the job--nothing more. On any other day, I would rather eat something else. On Thanksgiving, it can only be turkey.
My good fortune as an American astounds me. My grandparents came from Poland. In the year I was born, all the Jews in my ancestral towns were murdered by the Nazis. Me? My worst fear was that the Brooklyn Dodgers would lose to the Yankees. The century of Hitler and Stalin, of the tortured and the disappeared, of Kosovo and Rwanda, has been spared us. For this we can only say thanks.
My father was born in a New York tenement and at 90 is nearly as old as the century. When the PBS documentary on New York City aired recently, I looked in amazement at photos of squalid tenement scenes. It seems incomprehensible that he had lived there. Now he lives in Florida, a modest condo near an artificial lake. Thanks.
My mother was born in Poland. Her childhood memories are of hunger and fear. Armies commuted through her town--Germans, Poles, Russians, Reds, Whites and just plain hoodlums looking for loot and victims. Now she lives in Florida, the same modest condo near the same artificial lake--63 years of marriage come February. Thanks.
I know there are poor in America. I know there's racism. I know many of our schools stink, and some people don't have health insurance, and on a given day I think our political system is broken beyond repair. I abhor the importance of money, the role of consultants, the vapidity of many politicians and, on occasion, the vapidity and superficiality of some of my fellow journalists--especially the ones who don't see things my way.
But I have recently been to New Hampshire with the presidential candidates. As always, I can't figure out what to make of it. On the one hand, this is a ridiculous way to choose a president--a little state, relatively few voters, independents choosing the nominee of a party they probably quit, the endless trek from house party to house party and, for the press, the same joke over and over again.
And yet, what an exercise in democracy! Here, for instance, is Albert Gore Jr., vice president of the United States, at an open meeting. He takes a question from a lesbian about same-sex marriages. A longtime junkie stands simply to be heard. An African-born woman asks about a war in the Congo. The elderly bewail the cost of drugs, school administrators bewail the cost of special education and, usually, someone asks why Gore thinks he ought to be president.
This is the humbling of the American politician, a calling to account. It happens to them all and it happens best every four years in New Hampshire, where, at least at first, television ads plays a minor role. It is always amazing to watch this process. It is always a privilege.
Back at the Waldorf--at the dinner for the Committee to Protect Journalists--Baton Haxhiu of Kosovo is accepting his award. We see a video of how he kept his newspaper going during the war, the threats against his life, the unbelievable working conditions. He is standing before us now, jarring in his tux.
"Nobody's perfect," he says in heavily accented English. "Except God is perfect. And America is almost perfect."