MAXWELL:  The miracle that is American democracy

11/17/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Moments before USAir Flight 2312 landed at Washington National Airport, I readied myself to catch a glimpse of the triumvirate of presidential memorials, the White House and the Capitol Building.

To me, this approach to the District is the most awe-inspiring, patriotic sight in the United States. And because I was viewing it two days after the Nov. 5 presidential election, a day when the principles of democracy worked as the founding fathers pretty much had intended, the scene below reaffirmed my belief in the permanent viability of our system.

First, I saw only clouds. Then, as if the navigator had given the pilot bad coordinates, the Boeing 737 banked steeply and turned sharply toward the runway. Bright sunlight lit up my section of the cabin, and a 555-foot marble obelisk jutted into the sky, seemingly a few yards beneath the plane.

This apparition, the Washington Monument, towers above the Mall. Now, because I knew what to look for, I recognized the Potomac River and the Tidal Basin where the majestic Jefferson Memorial stands. And as the aircraft pulled around, I saw the sprawling, temple-like Lincoln Memorial.

About an hour later, after settling in at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, I caught a taxi to the Mall. I had not been there in over a year, when I reported on the Million Man March.

I walked past the Washington Monument directly to the Lincoln Memorial _ the most spiritual place in the city. Built in the image of the Parthenon in Greece, this shrine pays appropriate homage to our 16th president. Inside the building, I, like hundreds of other visitors, felt Lincoln’s presence in the marble walls of the outer chamber.

A hush fell over us as the 19-foot-high statue of Abraham Lincoln, sitting in profound contemplation, overshadowed us. Instinctively, I touched one of 36 fluted Doric columns that represent the states of the Union at the time of Lincoln’s assassination. Avoiding a group of awe-struck Koreans, I tiptoed inside the memorial chamber, my eyes tracing the contours of the 60-foot ceilings down to the limestone walls on which Lincoln’s Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address are inscribed.

After reading both speeches, I walked to the reflection pool, where hundreds of Asian, Arab, French, Russian and American schoolchildren frolicked. Members of a group of German tourists chatted with six black women wearing T-shirts reading: “Women’s Auxiliary, Church of God in Christ, New York.”

I walked to the Jefferson Memorial. Its columned rotunda inspires patriotism, and the specter of Thomas Jefferson’s statue, frozen in profound contemplation, challenges the intellect and reminds visitors that individual freedom must be protected at all costs. Many foreigners intuitively comprehend America’s principle of freedom when they see the statues of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, men who helped Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence.

Unapologetically inspired, I read aloud a few words of Jefferson that are engraved on a wall: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Whether or not our third president believed his own words, I had no way of knowing. On this day, however, each syllable was quintessential America.

Checking my watch, I realized that I had better return to the hotel. I had about two hours to prepare for a speech I was to deliver at an awards dinner sponsored by Project Interchange, an institute of the American Jewish Committee.

As I walked back to the Hyatt, I felt fortunate to be on the streets of the nation’s capital, within walking distance of the White House and Capitol Hill. Back in my room, I heard CNN talking heads announce growing turmoil in Bosnia; uncertainty and human and environmental degradation in the former Soviet Union; human rights atrocities in China; increasing child prostitution and cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome in Taiwan; murder and starvation in Zaire and Rwanda; deadly tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

Again feeling fortunate, I thought of how our country had just re-elected Democrat Bill Clinton as president, of how we had chosen a new Republican-led Congress _ all without shedding one speck of human blood.

For better or for worse, I was even in a mood to forgive the millions of dollars of “soft” money and the thousands of negative ads that had influenced many campaigns, including that of the president and that of his challenger, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.

But I knew that, even with these problems, ours remains the best system of government in human history. Extremists on the right and on the left, along with various ethnic groups, may grouse. But, if they honestly look at the plights of citizens in non-democratic nations, most of our home-grown malcontents would begin to appreciate the miracle that is American democracy.

During our recent elections, most pessimists did nothing to seriously inform themselves about the issues, did nothing to help a neighbor learn about the issues, did nothing to help create a climate of genuine tolerance. To me, they have no right to complain.

I left the nation’s capital agreeing more than ever with author Richard Aldington, who wrote: “Patriotism is a lively sense of collective responsibility.”