“Twelve years ago tonight, I addressed this convention for the very first time.” That’s how President Obama began his political valedictory Wednesday night.
When he gave that first convention speech, I was a young Iraq War veteran, fresh off the plane, watching in rapt fascination — and already enlisted in what would be a losing effort by the Democratic Party to show that we could be patriots, too.
I had deployed to Iraq in April 2003, reluctantly convinced of the necessity for war by an old general’s presentation, not that anyone was asking sergeants like me whether we were for the war before they sent us to it. Six months later, as the insurgency that took thousands of Iraqi lives — and over 4,000 American ones — began boiling over all around me, I was no longer convinced. By the time my plane landed in Colorado in March 2004, ending my unit’s year-long deployment, I resolutely opposed the war. I saw it as unwise, our presence undesirable and our objectives unachievable.
So I began volunteering for the presumptive Democratic nominee, John F. Kerry. As I learned more about his service in Vietnam and his opposition to that war once he returned, I began drawing parallels between his experiences and mine. As did his campaign, which wasted no time in recruiting me as one of his veteran supporters.
I spoke before audiences small and great. My legs shaking, hands trembling, knees weak, I delivered the same message, over and again: It was time to “let America be America again.” If you wanted America to change course, if you wanted to restore the promise of America and make it mean something again, vote for Kerry. Sure — we made a mistake going to war in Iraq. But if you wanted to do right by me and my fellow troops, then we had to get the right man in — and that man was Kerry.
Comparing that 2004 convention, where Obama made his national debut, and the one this past week in Philadelphia, it’s almost hard to recognize the party. Twelve years after Kerry put on a desperate show of patriotic fervor, Democrats spent the past week declaring Republican nominee Donald Trump and his ideas un-American.
We heard from a general and a soldier as delegates literally wrapped themselves in the flag and chanted “USA! USA!” to drown out antiwar protests. The vice-presidential nominee, whose son is a deployed Marine, rocks a Blue Star pin on his lapel. Seized by the emotion of the moment, Sen. Tim Kaine hollered out the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fi” (Always Faithful). (The North Carolina Republican Party, not recognizing the pin, accused him of wearing the Honduran flag; they apologized in the face of universal derision.) Meanwhile, Trump importuned Russia — Russia! — to wage electronic warfare on the United States, and accused Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of starting wars in the Middle East.
If you’d told me as a nervous Vet for Kerry in 2004 that this was what 2016 had in store, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Back then, Democrats leaned hard on Kerry’s wartime experience — and, to a far lesser degree, mine and those of other veterans — to try to shield themselves from the putrescent insinuation that liberals and progressives were less willing to defend America from enemies within and without. The 9/11 attacks and the early years of the Iraq War left the party in a defensive crouch, and the result was ham-handed: How can we be unpatriotic, America? We nominated a war hero! And here’s his veteran squad! Whether in Boston, where Democrats held their convention in 2004; in Colorado, where I lived; or elsewhere in America, you could sense the insecurity Democrats felt whenever their security bona fides were questioned. (And they were questioned often, mercilessly and effectively, by George W. Bush’s reelection campaign.) It was the political equivalent of flop sweat. As Kerry shuffled up to the podium, saluted us, and declaimed he was “reporting for duty,” you could intuit the hollowness of it all.
The 2004 convention was the sad culmination of a long, punishing pummeling of Democrats by Republicans wielding the cudgel of national security. Nixon’s Republicans began waving the bloody shirt at Democrats as the Vietnam War ground on in futility. Reagan’s strutted to the themes of a plucky country standing up against an Evil Empire™ and attacked Democrats as soft on communism. The performance reached its peak when Bush donned a flight suit and landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln to deliver a speech declaring an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
Against that, what was a salute? It was nothing, and voters knew it. They knew in their guts that Republicans would keep them safe, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, that Democrats couldn’t be trusted to do that, and that was that.
But in 2016, thanks to Trump, Democrats have figured out a broader, deeper, richer way to talk about patriotism and national security that isn’t really about troops, tanks, guns or ships.
Because ultimately, patriotism isn’t just about wars and tanks and planes and troops. It’s about the ideas that make America great, not empty boasts that you’ll make it great again.
At its heart, patriotism is simply love of country. No one who watched Clinton’s convention — least of anyone who saw Khizr Khan’s dramatic elegy of his son’s sacrifice, and consequent challenge to Trump — can doubt that Democrats are abounding in that love.
Contrast that with the carnival of fear and terror we saw the preceding week in Cleveland. There, Trump and his minions painted a nightmarish hellscape of an America only one man could save. Where Obama said Americans do not seek to be ruled, Republicans prostrated themselves before Trump and implored him to rule over them. Nowhere in Cleveland was there to be found love of what America is, or what it is becoming; only fear, terror and fury. Only that, and a desperate, animal desire to restore America to a pale caricature fantasy. What patriotism was there to be found in the empty exhortations to “make America great again,” when that America explicitly doesn’t include me or my friends or anyone I know?
Back in 2004, my refrain at Vets for Kerry rallies — “let America be America again” — had, briefly, been a semiofficial slogan for the campaign. At some point, top aides in Boston dropped it.
It came from a poem by Langston Hughes, written in 1938. “Let my land be a land where Liberty/is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,” the poem implores. “But opportunity is real, and life is free/equality is in the air we breathe.” It took 12 years, and a demagogue looming, but I’m glad to see Democrats have finally started listening to Hughes again.