Keeping our nation great (11/27/2014)

Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations reflect who we are as a nation, writes David Adler.

By David Adler

The tradition of presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving, initiated in 1789 by George Washington, in the form of a non-controversial executive order, quickly became a vessel for exaltation of blessings secured and those Americans hoped would endure, including cherished civil and religious liberties, as well as what Washington sought: enactment of “wise, just and constitutional laws.”

The conclusions of war, or their diminution, often have evoked from presidents expressions of thanks that lives might be spared and peace restored. Poverty, afoot in America since the beginning, frequently has been singled out as a striking condition requiring correction.

In 1964, in the infancy of a presidency that he inherited upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson delivered one of the most memorable presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving.

Set against the backdrop of an array of national security and foreign policy challenges – the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis and simmering Cold War tensions and fears – LBJ declared that “the foundation for a peaceful world is still to be built.”

That formidable challenge, indeed an enduring challenge, remains an aspiration; it was for George Washington, it is for Barack Obama, and it will be for the next president.

In the context of his proclamation 60 years ago, Johnson spoke in the swirling winds of civil rights advances, social upheaval and societal change.

The cause of racial equality in America was surging: the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s majestic words had galvanized millions of blacks and whites into action; citizens from various regions of the country were pouring into the South to combat discrimination and racism, and the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act in July of 1964 had laid the groundwork for the next great achievement – the Voting Rights Act, which would be enacted within a year.

The War on Poverty, never destined to achieve its grand goals because of the tragedy and cost of the Vietnam War, nevertheless drew national attention to the plight of the poor and spawned a generation of programs, governmental and non-profit, that continue to feed the hungry and house the poor.

Those causes – freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom of the press – and Johnson’s emphasis on the “equality and dignity” of men and women are, he said, those “ things that set us apart as a Nation, that made our Nation great, that will keep our Nation great.”

America’s continued pursuit of those great causes, in policies, programs and prayers reflect, Johnson observed, “our confidence in our ability to meet the challenges of today and in the future.”

Americans’ impulse to give thanks for our many blessings, coupled with our energetic efforts to find more effective means of securing our rights and liberties, searching for peace and mitigating the social ills that afflict our nation – racism and poverty, among others – reflects our character as a people, and define us as a nation.

As a community, we persevere and seek remedies and cures; we always have. Proud of our accomplishments, but keenly aware of our shortcomings, we continue to paddle. Like Gatsby, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.