Something about the place, steeped in such distinguished history, touched a common nerve in us. We fell silent for a time, when a smile crossed my friend’s face. With wonder, he said, “Imagine a kid from Russell, Kansas, having an office like this.”
My home at birth was a three-room house. I grew up during the Dust Bowl, when so many of us helplessly watched our livelihoods blow away with the wind. I have always felt humbled to live in a nation that would allow my unlikely story to unfold.
Many nights during my time as majority leader, I would step out on my office balcony overlooking the National Mall and be reminded of what made my journey possible. Facing me were monuments to our nation’s first commander in chief, the author of our Declaration of Independence, and the president who held our union together. In the distance were the countless graves of those who gave their lives so that we could live free.
That inspiring view came back to me as I watched the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol. I imagined the view of those monuments and headstones obscured by clouds of tear gas. I thought about the symbol of our democracy consumed by anger, hatred and violence.
There has been a lot of talk about what it will take to heal our country. We have heard many of our leaders profess “bipartisanship.” But we must remember that bipartisanship is the minimum we should expect from ourselves.
America has never achieved greatness when Republicans and Democrats simply manage to work together or tolerate each other. We have overcome our biggest challenges only when we focused on our shared values and experiences. These common ties form much stronger bonds than political parties.
I cannot pretend that I have not been a loyal champion for my party, but I always served my country best when I did so first and foremost as an American. I fought for veterans benefits not as a Republican but as someone who witnessed the heroism of our service members firsthand. I advocated for those with disabilities not as a member of the GOP but as someone who personally understood the limitations of a world without basic accommodations. I stood up for those going hungry not as a leader in my party but as someone who had seen too many folks sweat through a hard day’s work without being able to put dinner on the table.
When we prioritize principles over party and humanity over personal legacy, we accomplish far more as a nation. By leading with a shared faith in each other, we become America at its best: a beacon of hope, a source of comfort in crisis, a shield against those who threaten freedom.
Our nation’s recent political challenges remind us that our standing as the leader of the free world is not simply destiny. It is a deliberate choice that every generation must make and work toward. We cannot do it divided.
I do have hope that our country will rediscover its greatness. Perhaps it is the optimism that comes from spending 98 years as a proud American. I grew up in what others have called the Greatest Generation. Together, we put an end to Nazi tyranny. Our nation confronted Jim Crow, split the atom, eliminated the anguish of polio, planted our flag on the moon and tore down the Berlin Wall. Rising above partisanship, we made historic gains in feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. To make a more perfect union, we swung open the doors of economic opportunity for women who were ready to rise to their fullest potential and leave shattered glass ceilings behind them.
Our nation has certainly faced periods of division. But at the end of the day, we have always found ways to come together.
We can find that unity again.
In 1951, when I was newly elected to the Kansas House of Representatives, a reporter asked me what I had on my agenda. I said, “Well, I’m going to sit back and watch for a few days, and then I’ll stand up for what I think is right.” In 1996, when I left public office for the final time, I announced the same plans, to sit back for a few days, then start standing up for what I thought was right.
After sharing these thoughts, I plan to once again return to my seat to sit back and watch. Though this time, I will count on tomorrow’s leaders to stand up for what is right for America. With full optimism and faith in our nation’s humanity, I know they will.