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senator pell

Senator Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island)

I suppose that expressing gratitude toward political leaders might cause some readers to doubt my sanity. Would a sane person thank leaders who inflict upon us two-year election campaigns filled with pettiness and opportunistic dishonesty?

It’s a fair question. After all, no matter which candidate wins the presidential election, half of the voting public will be disgusted and half of the citizenry, those who won’t even bother to vote, will be indifferent. These are not signs of health in our democracy.

Still, I’m an optimist. I believe that democracy is good, political elections are messy yet important, public service can be virtuous, and leadership matters. Some leaders are better than others, and great leaders feel compassion and respect, not contempt, for those whom they lead.

If I define good leaders as those men and women who focus on issues and decisions that matter not just to my family but to all Americans, then I can see which leaders I should thank.

The list of political leaders I respect is long. I admire the ones who expand and defend individual freedom while strengthening communal cooperation and support. I support leaders who focus on creating an economic environment that births good jobs and economic growth, both of which also increase revenues. I respect fiscal discipline and realism, the willingness to cut wasteful spending and tax as necessary for vital spending, and policies that expand individual freedom for all citizens, not only for a privileged elite.

I’m grateful to Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. These men, at great personal risk, freed us from aristocratic tyranny and demonstrated that a large democracy could work and create prosperity.

I’m grateful to Abraham Lincoln, the famous moderate Republican, for preserving a strong central government and ending the moral abomination of legal slavery. As a writer and citizen, I thank him for one specific phrase in the Gettysburg Address: “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I’m grateful to Franklin D. Roosevelt for saving democratic capitalism from its own excesses, laying the foundation for a large and prosperous middle class, and opposing fascism. I’m grateful to Dwight D. Eisenhower for solidifying and expanding our postwar prosperity, keeping us out of major wars, and warning us about the real dangers of excessive military spending and self-interested factions who exert excessive control upon our political system.

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I’m grateful to Republican Representative Jeannette Rankin, who cast the only vote against our entrance into both World War I and World War II. War, even a just or necessary war, is a terrible human activity. It matters to me that we live in a country where people are brave enough to take solitary stands against something they believe is wrong.

At a personal level, I’m grateful to John F. Kennedy for his administration’s adroit handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. My father was a private first class in an army division during Kennedy’s presidency. I was born in 1968. But if my father or mother had died in a World War III or my father been traumatized by a long occupation, perhaps I would not exist.

I’m particularly grateful to Senator Claiborne Pell, who died on January 1, 2009. Shortly after Pell’s death, Beth Macy wrote an essay entitled “The Door That Claiborne Pell Opened” in which she explained her own debt of gratitude to “the Princeton-educated senator [who] came from such old money that his people once owned much of New York’s Westchester County and the Bronx.”

Pell labored for three years to secure the passage of the bill, which he called “the GI Bill for everybody.” The eventual results were Pell Grants and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). In addition to my academic scholarship and subsidized student loan, I received a Pell Grant, as I remember, during every semester of my undergraduate enrollment; perhaps I would not have graduated from college without it.

Millions of households like mine or Beth Macy’s now are firmly rooted in the middle or upper class because of this man’s effort. Claiborne Pell was the kind of exceptional leader that Mitt Romney could have been.

A good leader in a democracy does not expect the citizenry to act like fearful peasants or servants. Good leaders in democracies place their talents in service to people both like and unlike themselves, to the nation, and to the world. So, finally, I’m grateful that we have leaders like Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio who are willing to run in these crazy elections.

nick capo

I believe that they, and the people like them, are motivated by more admirable causes than keeping their tax rate below fifteen percent.

Nick Capo

Published: Saturday, 22 September 2012