Wissot: Overcoming our imperfections is what has always made America great (column)
The preamble to the United States Constitution offers several reasons why the document was created. Prominent among them is the need to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare.”
But before those reasons comes, “In order to form a more perfect union.”
I don’t think that phrase was placed first by accident. I think the Founding Fathers realized that they were a group of imperfect men attempting to form a government that was destined to be imperfect. Imperfect men were incapable of forming a perfect union. Only a less imperfect one.
As the historian Joseph J. Ellis said, “When the Founders talked about ‘We the people,’ they were not talking about black people. They weren’t talking about women, and they weren’t talking about Native Americans.” (Time, October 29, 2018)
The genius of the document was that it didn’t matter. As Thurgood Marshall said, before becoming a Supreme Court Justice, to his civil rights clients, “The Constitution was not written for us. We know that. But no matter what it takes, we are going to make it work for us.” (“It’s Thurgood Marshall to the Rescue In A New Thriller,” New York Times, Adam Liptak, Sept. 8, 2017)
It took minority rights attorneys like Marshall (Brown vs. Board of Education) and women’s rights attorneys like Ruth Bader Ginsburg winning Supreme Court victories to prove that the 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law) applied to their clients. (“How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became A Trailblazer For Gender Equality,” The Economist, May 18, 2018)
Congress played an important role as well. Between 1866 and 2006 it passed 17 Civil Rights Acts to protect minorities and women. (“Constitutional Amendments and Major Civil Rights Acts of Congress,” United States House of Representatives, History, Art and Archives)
In this regard, the Constitution was a down payment on a promise made in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Our history has been one of imperfections identified and addressed; attempts made by imperfect men to challenge the imperfections in themselves and our nation.
Former President Barak Obama referred to this country’s commitment to improvement and not perfection when he said, “Better is good. Better is always worth fighting for.” (Speech at the University of Illinois, Urbana, Sept. 7, 2018)
The legendary Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL titles in seven years in the 1960s, grasped the same idea when he said to his players “perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” (“12 Quotes From Vince Lombardi,” Ross Atkin, Christian Science Monitor, June 11, 2012)
A new challenge to our quest to form a more perfect union faces us today. It has to do with the tarnishing of truth and its replacement with propaganda by liars and deniers in authority.
Placed in the context of the Civil War, where the fight was between those who agreed and disagreed about the institution of slavery, in today’s Orwellian politics the denial that the South even owned slaves would be put forward by the fabricators of falsehoods.
I don’t think I am exaggerating here. President Donald Trump, abetted by a shamefully silent Republican Party, has promoted lies about widespread voter fraud, the legitimacy of the Mueller investigation, the accuracy of intelligence reports, the integrity of the FBI, the fairness of our courts and the security threat posed by alleged “caravans” of dangerous immigrants attempting to sneak across our border with Mexico. None of which has any factual foundation.
We have dealt with dictatorial political personalities in the past, from Huey Long in the 1930s to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, to George Wallace in the 1960s. But we have never faced the challenge of an autocrat in the White House. This is a first for us.
I’m optimistic that our democracy can withstand the current attempt at imperial rule and restore stability to our republic. I take comfort and inspiration from the historian, Jon Meecham, who in a recent speech predicted that “20 years from now we will be living in Barak Obama’s America and not Donald Trump’s America.” (“Have We Ever Had A Trump Before?” Jon Meacham, National Book Festival, Sept. 1, 2018)
I sure hope he is right.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.