In their debate Wednesday night, the Republican candidates kept quite busy answering questions about foreign policy and birth control, and attacking one another over earmarks and Congressional voting records. Their combative tone was not lessened one bit by the major format change — from standing formally to sitting casually at a table. Am I the only one who craves a word or two about how each might handle another part of the job — the healing part?
Earlier in the day, I had watched the broadcast of the ceremonial groundbreaking for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. I appreciated the tableau, which brought together the living history of John Lewis of Georgia — who carried the literal scars of American civil rights battles into his current place in the U.S. House of Representatives — and former first lady Laura Bush, a member of the museum’s advisory board.
I listened to President Obama’s message that he wants his daughters and all visitors “to appreciate this museum not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life.”
While some Americans may wonder why a museum dedicated to the history and culture of Africans Americans deserves prime space alongside the Washington Monument, the president offered the context: “It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom. It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built, often by black hands. And it is on this spot — alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation, and those who worked so hard to perfect it — that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African Americans have played in the life of our country.”
Presiding at a moment such as this, reminding a sometimes fractured county of the rough, ultimately triumphant history of America and acknowledging each hard-won step forward is what the president of the United States does. Bringing citizens in this sprawling messy United States together, or trying to, is important to a country dealing with overlapping narratives. A crisis may be in the present — a senseless massacre in Tucson — or it may reach from the past, symbolized in the museum set to take its place on the National Mall in November 2015.
At the groundbreaking, the wife of a Republican president gave credit to the civil rights legislation passed under a Democratic one, Lyndon B. Johnson. Of the museum, Laura Bush said she was “glad it will stand next to the monument to our first president, George Washington, who freed his slaves in his will.”
Though it was Civil War veterans who first pushed for such a museum a century ago, it took a bipartisan effort in both chambers of Congress and the support of Republicans such as president George W. Bush to move it forward. Conservative GOP Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who attended Wednesday’s Washington event, sponsored legislation in support of establishing the museum when he served in the U.S. Senate.
Some things transcend partisan politics.
But has that message gotten through to the candidates fighting for the Republican 2012 nomination? Can you picture any of them presiding over a ceremony of reconciliation and unity? When I tried to, the picture was fuzzy.
How would Rick Santorum segue from his belief in the president’s “phony theology,” his scolding words for single-parent households and women in jobs other than housewife and mother? How inclusive could Mitt Romney be after saying his campaign is about more than replacing a president, “it is about saving the soul of America”? How could Newt Gingrich lure those Americans he said “should demand jobs, not food stamps”? And Ron Paul? He still insists America made a mistake in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, he said, “destroyed the principle of private property and private choices”? And there’s the matter of the racist newsletters bearing his name.
It’s a long way from faith-filled vs. godless, job-creating vs. entitlement-hogging, us vs. them to celebrating all the disagreeing and sometimes disagreeable Americans crammed into the country’s big tent. It’s a very long way from the party of Lincoln to the word and deed of today’s campaigners.
While I’m sure the four GOP candidates were too busy honing one-liners for Wednesday night combat, watching a diverse line-up shovel some dirt around on a site that will make history could have taught them a thing or two about the job description. At the very least, it would have served as a brief reminder that the president of the United States has to govern “all” the people, something that is awfully hard to do when you’ve deemed so many of them un-American.
Critics can rightly have at the President Obama on a host of issues. But his tone, his words and his very presence as the first African American president helped to make Wednesday’s ceremony a moving one.
Last week, I spoke by phone with Lonnie Bunch, the founding director for the National Museum for African American History and Culture. He has traveled the country, collecting pieces of history — abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s hymn book and a shawl given to her by Queen Victoria, slave shackles sized for a child, a Tuskegee Airman’s plane, restored and donated by an active duty Air Force captain, and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.
Bunch, who was appointed by then-President George W. Bush to the Commission for the Preservation of the White House in 2002, said the museum provides a chance to “cry over the pain, find the joy” and use the African American culture — the qualities of resiliency, optimism and spirituality — “to understand what it means to be an American.”
He envisions the museum as a “beacon” that draws people to Washington then pushes them back to action in their local communities. “This is a global story.”
While Bunch was grateful for bipartisan support in Congress, he said, “What really hits me is the way the public responds to this.” He told the story of a Smithsonian janitor — exhausted, tired and ready to retire — “who wanted to stay around long enough to be able to clean our museum.”
That janitor and all Americans deserve a president big enough for the moments that only seem small.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.