An express trains speeds past Ramsey station in this 2003 photo, ruffling Mayor Richard Muti's jacket, but not the mayor.



June 10, 2018

Tags: A frank look at America's past and hope for its future

“Make America Great Again,” the never-ending Trump campaign’s slogan, presupposes that America was once great. There’s no question that the United States of America has done great things during the course of its history. Winning the Second World War, putting a man on the moon, and engineering the demise of the Soviet Union come immediately to mind. There are hundreds more examples. But doing one or two or a hundred great things does not make a nation fundamentally great. I contend that America has never been great in that sense and that the goal of our leaders should be to make us so, not to dupe the public into believing one man’s shallow understanding of American history. MAG not MAGA.

I’ve earned the right to hold this brazen point of view, so contrary to the American ethos. I served my country in uniform for nine years; I served my community as a local elected official for 10 years; I served my county and state as a prosecutor for 19 years. And, I am a citizen of a country that values freedom of speech and freedom of the press – or, at least, of a country that used to cherish those principles.

The era of America’s former greatness – that is, the standard to be once again attained -- is left unspecified by President Donald Trump and his adherents. Most of them anyway. Republican candidate Roy Moore, whom the president enthusiastically endorsed in the recent U.S. Senate race in Alabama, was asked that very question – “When was America great?” – at a campaign event. America “was great at a time when families were united,” Moore opined, “even though we had slavery.”

On another occasion, Moore suggested that the nation would be better off if all amendments to the Constitution after the Bill of Rights had never been enacted. In other words, if slavery had never been abolished (13th Amendment), if equal protection of laws had not been declared a fundamental right (14th Amendment), if the right of former slaves to vote had not been ensured (15th Amendment), and if women’s suffrage had never been achieved (19th amendment).

Despite those and other extreme views, and despite credible allegations of child molestation against him, Roy Moore garnered 49 percent of the vote, bolstered by 81-percent support among white evangelicals – not exactly a harbinger of greatness to come during the Trump era.

What then might be the answer to that question, “When was American Great?” Perhaps the four-year span in which our Constitution and its Bill of Rights were crafted and ratified, 1787-1791, would qualify, were it not for the fact that nearly half the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were slave owners and the fact that the venerable document, itself, while not mentioning the word slavery, per se, preserved the institution of slavery until the Civil War bloodbath of 1861-1865 abolished it. Not the stuff of greatness.

Indeed, the first 250 years of our existence, from colonial times to the end of slavery, must be removed from any consideration of greatness, solely on the slavery issue. The period of Reconstruction, when the victorious North kept the defeated South under its heel, and the Jim Crow era that followed, legalizing segregation and subjugation of blacks in the South and elsewhere, must similarly be eliminated as contenders for greatness. Not until Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was race discrimination made illegal, though it would take decades more for most of society to banish the concept from its collective mind.

In my view, the Second World War, and its immediate aftermath, was the time when we nearly achieved greatness. President Franklin Roosevelt made us the “arsenal of democracy” in the run-up to our direct involvement, but once we were forced into the fray by the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was the ingenuity, productivity and spirit of the American people that defeated the Axis powers and won it. Still, two moral failings prevent this era from being the standard of greatness.

It was a segregated military that prosecuted the war. The top brass argued that integrating blacks into the armed forces would destroy unit cohesiveness, a lame excuse proven false when President Truman ended segregation in the military by executive order in 1948. Our country’s response to Nazi persecution of European Jews was equally reprehensible. We set extremely low immigration quotas for those fleeing the Holocaust. A more liberal policy might have saved a million lives, but anti-Semitism here was widespread at the time, and President Roosevelt, despite First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s urgings to the contrary, bowed to the public will.

More examples of governmental action weaken any claims to greatness in the decades that followed. The abuse of civil rights protestors by local, county and state officials throughout the South was rampant in the 1950s and early 1960s, some of it rising to unbelievable levels of violence, like the fire hosing of young people and the use of attack dogs on them in Birmingham and the Pettus Bridge police attack on voting rights marchers, including future U.S. Representative John Lewis (D., GA), in Selma.

In another affront to decency, the U.S. Public Health Service withheld proper medical treatment from hundreds of black sharecroppers in Alabama to study the effects of “Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,” a program that lasted from the early thirties until 1972. Using unsuspecting humans as medical guinea pigs? For 40 years? A great nation does not treat its citizens, or anyone, in so despicable a way, no matter how humble their social status.

The sustained wars that followed the Second World War – the Korean “police action,” the Vietnam War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – all were entered into and conducted without the declaration of war by Congress that is required under our Constitution. And all were unnecessary wars, in my opinion. Some military strikes in Afghanistan were necessary to roust Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from safe havens, but a military engagement of sixteen years? And one that seems to have no end in sight? Not the stuff of great foreign policy.

A nation that suffers tens of millions of its citizens to be without proper health care, a nation that allows such disparities of wealth among its citizens as exist today and that enacts tax policies designed to make those disparities even larger, a nation that denigrates science and that denies truth – such a nation cannot be considered great. Not in its past, not now, and not in its future.

Selected Works

A fast-paced, one-volume study of the most fascinating entertainer of the 20th century. The book isn't an academic tome, although it is extensively researched and footnoted; rather, it is designed to be a highly readable page-turner, for avid Sinatraphiles as well as more casual fans of his music and films. It examines the forces, both positive and negative, that made Sinatra Sinatra, with special attention given to the love-hate relationship he maintained toward Hoboken and New Jersey for most of his life. He once called the city of his birth a "sewer," but later observed, "When I was there, I just wanted to get out. It took me a long time to realize how much of it I took with me."
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Filled with “brilliant plot twists, vivid descriptions, and great dialogue, with a smooth, easy-to-read writing style.”

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