As the most frightening election of my lifetime draws to a close, I find myself thinking of a teenager I met many years ago in Siberia who was moved to tears after sitting for an exam to win a U.S.-sponsored study trip to the United States.
She didn’t yet know whether she had won or lost — but it was the first time she had ever felt she was competing for something on her merits, where bribes or connections to people in power would have no effect. That alone made her grateful and admiring of the United States.
She was seeing what, to me, is the real America.
I find myself thinking, too, of the many U.S. Foreign Service officers I met during that same phase of my life, when I was working for The Post as a foreign correspondent. They didn’t live glamorous lives, these young and not-so-young diplomats, and they didn’t get much glory. They became fluent in the local language in Dushanbe or Seoul or Yerevan, and they spent long days and nights meeting local politicians and activists and artists, writing cables that might or might not get read back in Washington, doing their best to understand other cultures and explain ours.
Many of them could have been earning more, and living more comfortably, in other jobs. But they wanted to serve their country. The quality of their work ranged, I’m sure, but for the most part they were impressive and dedicated. Certainly they were not “stupid.” They were no “disaster.”
They also were the real America.
I think of the many military men and women I met, in another phase of my career, when I was writing about national security. I would patrol the corridors of the Pentagon every morning for news, and I got to know a lot of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine officers. Many of them chafed at their desk jobs — they wanted to be back in action, at sea, flying again — but they did their Washington work with amazing diligence. They rose in early-morning darkness to jog and stay fit, worked late to staff their higher-ranking officers, coached their kids’ soccer teams on weekends if they could get a few hours off.
Maybe not all of them were star performers. But for the most part they were good-humored, self-sacrificing, patriotic, confident without conceit and well-educated across an astonishing number of fields. They were not “rubble.” They were not “losers.”
They were the real America.
I find myself thinking, in the midst of all the ugliness, of the crossing guard at my local elementary school, who never misses a morning, and never misses a chance to greet a small child cheerfully. To me, she is America.
I think of the gentleman who lives up the street from me and who, year after year, performs the thankless task of collecting dues and keeping the rolls of our neighborhood association, so the community can do a bit to welcome newcomers or plant a few trees. To me, that is America.
I think of the volunteers who helped me vote 10 days ago at my early-polling station — all ages, all colors, various accents, all polite and professional and committed to helping us exercise our franchise. I think of the Uber driver who picked me up late one night last week, an immigrant from Pakistan who works a day job at his local Giant and cheerfully commiserated with me for having to work late.
I think of a young colleague here at work whose parents immigrated from a strife-torn country far away and worked ceaselessly to educate their three children, including this talented daughter. She, too, could be earning more — no one becomes a journalist to get rich. But I sense she chose this work because, while she appreciates the opportunities the United States afforded her family, she thinks the country could do better, and journalism is one way to nudge it in the right direction.
To me, that is America too.
I think of a young acquaintance who signed up for Teach For America in a city where he knew no one and then, when his term was up, stayed to start a small nonprofit to help more poor kids go to college. I think of a much older acquaintance who had an honorable career in the private and public sectors and, when it was time to retire, joined the board of one of Washington’s most useful nonprofit organizations; and when it was time to move on from that, began volunteering in a soup kitchen, rising at dawn to crack eggs and help make breakfast for people who can use a hot meal.
To me, America is not at heart selfish, petty, hateful or bigoted. One candidate for president may be all of those things, and may suggest that we are like him. But I don’t believe most Americans — including most Americans voting for him — share those ungenerous traits.
I don’t believe we will elect such a man, either. But if we did, I believe the real America would be strong enough to survive and outlast him and remain — or once again become — the kind of place a teenager in Siberia can admire.
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