I don’t like getting political on this blog very often, mostly because when it comes down to it, someone over there under my politics sidebar or one of my more outspoken friends will have said what I’m feeling much more eloquently than I’d put it.
But Karl Rove’s questioning Michelle Obama’s patriotism really, really gets to me.
What she said in February, in a speech in Madison, WI: “People in this country are ready for change and hungry for a different kind of politics, and … for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
Now go on and read her speech addressing the DNC Monday night, if you missed it. If you can read that, or better yet, watch it, and still question whether or not she loves her country, I’d love to know what more you think she needs to say.
I know, logically, that questioning her patriotism is Yet Another Sound Bite. Slap a label on a candidate, or their spouse, or someone in their campaign, and it’s sure to stick for a good, long time, no matter how untrue the words written on that label. Election years are all about taking things out of context and blowing one poorly considered phrase way out of proportion. I get that. I do.
But I can tell you exactly why it bothers me so much.
Come back with me to those terrible weeks after September 11, 2001. Come sit in my parents’ kitchen, in the house where I grew up. Have a seat at the table, in this room that is so familiar but now, while the whole world is reeling, looks so different. Everything’s changed, even this place I still think of as home, even though Greg and I had bought a condo back in January.
My parents’ house is still largely the same – they won’t start redoing the kitchen for another few months; my wedding is still a year away. This place looks the same now as it did when I was three, and thirteen, and here I am at twenty-three, and the only difference I can find is that at some point they finally took the child-safety locks off the cabinets.
Except outside there’s something new.
Tell me about your neighborhood on September 10, 2001. Tell me what the houses looked like, the decorations outside. Seasonal flags in harvest colors? Cornuccopias and falling leaves? Plenty of autumnal celebration? Count the American flags for me.
Now count them for me on September 12th, or 15th, or 30th. Everywhere, aren’t they? Lining every streeet, adorning houses that never once flew anything. Flying on flagpoles, or in windows, fixed outside the front door. Red, white and blue, stars and stripes as far as the eye can see, yeah?
My parents’ house, too.
Close the front door, come back into the kitchen with me. Look at my dad. Vietnam vet, drafted into the army, served his country, came back to a nation that hated him. He’ll tell you hilarious stories about his service. Ask about the rice wine someday (but don’t be eating when you bring it up.) Ask him how he got to go to Sydney, Australia by donating blood.
There are things he won’t say, too. I was there the first time he stood at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was 1992. We were there for the National Spelling Bee, and had the day to explore on our own. I don’t know what twenty-year old memories came to him, then, but I remember the tears coming on him like a sudden storm, and the recollection of it still hurts my heart.
Almost ten years later, we sit in their kitchen, the news still filled with those towers, falling endlessly. It’s all there is to talk about, really, isn’t it? Where we were, how we heard. He was still driving the trains then, underground and away from any kind of news. When someone told him a plane had gone into the World Trade Center, he thought they meant the one in Boston. My mom called me crying, afraid Boston was the next target, telling me to go home, go home, go home.
The panic’s worn off, now, but not the shock. I don’t know if that ever really goes away.
I ask about their flag, whose idea it was to get one. Both of theirs, he says, though my mom might’ve brought it up first.
“I’ve never wanted to fly one before,” he says to me. “I’ve haven’t felt like a part of this country since I got home from Vietnam. My country didn’t want me. But now, these last few days, I’ve seen the way people have reacted. How they’ve come together.
“For the first time,” my father says — and yeah, there are tears in his eyes, which means they’re in mine, as well — “I’m proud to be an American.”
You can be patriotic and not be proud of your country. There are things this nation has done that are unspeakably shameful. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be made right. It doesn’t mean that someone or something can’t come along that uplifts you, inspires you, and brings back that spark of pride. For my father, it was the way the people of this country banded together in the wake of tragedy. For Michelle Obama, it’s seeing the energy and the determination and the hunger for change that’s been so evident during this campaign cycle.
That’s why I take such offense at Rove’s statement. Because if he’s questioning Michelle Obama’s sincerity, he’s questioning my father’s, too.