The NewsHour's regular panel of historians and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn discuss the meaning of patriotism in America as the nation celebrates the Fourth of July.
MARGARET WARNER: Americans just celebrated our nation's birthday with a long weekend break of barbecues and fireworks. But was it also a celebration of patriotism? Here to look at America's patriotism of past and present are three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them is former Senator Sam Nunn, Co-Chairman of the National Commission on Civil Renewal, which recently released a report, "A Nation of Spectators." Welcome all. Michael, what is our concept of patriotism today? Is it terribly different from what it was in the past?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It is. You know, you go back 222 years, back to the Declaration of Independence, 1776, the founders, when they signed that document, their idea was that Americans would feel that they had made such sacrifice to get free of Europe, the selfish nations of Europe, that we would all act with a huge sense of sacrifice; we wouldn't do things that were selfish; we'd do things that were for the betterment of the community.
And the interesting thing is that years passed by, then the Constitution came 1787, they had seen that Americans were not all that different from the rest of the world, and they wrote the Constitution with a different idea of patriotism, and that was that, yes, at times they would hope that we would sacrifice, but more often men were not angels. We should compete as much as we could in the political system and also in the private economy, it was sort of a free market definition, so that that definition of patriotism was compete and work as hard as possible. I think now in 1998, you can really see that both are part of a kind of patriotism that we think of today.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, how do you see patriotism today and how it compares?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think there's two parts to patriotism. One is fidelity to the land and the people, which is a warm feeling towards your country. And my guess it that many people feel pretty warmly today, given the economic prosperity, the peace in the world, and the number one prowess that we presumably have militarily, but the other side of patriotism, which in some ways I think is even more important, is fidelity to the idea of what America represents, which means, given our heritage as a republic and something different from those other nations, it meant freedom, it meant the opportunity, as Lincoln once said, to rise as far as your talents could take you unhindered by some sort of restrictions that are placed on you by birth. And I think the real continuing challenge for each generation is how to keep that second part of patriotism alive. And my guess is that each generation worries that it was better the generation before. I mean, the funny thing I was reading even George Washington at Valley Forge, he wrote a letter saying that he could not inspire his ragged troops by patriotic idealism alone. He needed cash, in other words, he wanted money for his soldiers.
And I've read in the 1870's, where people say, oh, it's just become chicken and barbecues, where's the idea of America, and surely, I feel some of that today. You really feel that somewhat this celebration is there, there's a certain sense in which the holidays are celebrated, but do we remember what it's all about, and maybe that's just the natural thing, when you get further and further away from the founding of a nation.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, it's taking up on what they both said, I have the same thing. My grandmother had a great big old chest. It was one of these chests that you pulled out family heirlooms, and every 4th of July my father would get a flag out. It had flown over his uncle's grave in France just before the end of World War I. And we would fly the flag on the 4th of July.
And that was a past-present-it meant something. It was the flag of the country. You didn't question it. There was no questions about it. There was a picture in the New York Times the other day-it was a wonderful archives picture out of the early 1900's of a group of schoolchildren in public school. They were all in their little costumes from all over the world, and there they were, young Americans, and their teacher of the school, whatever her name was, Rosie O'Grady, I don't know, she was standing there dressed like the Statue of Liberty, holding the flag. You understood instantly there was no question that America meant being from somewhere else but also meant we're altogether, we shared a common heritage. It's more complicated now.
MARGARET WARNER: How so?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I mean, the word "patriotism," itself, came into disfavor in the last generation over Vietnam and the idea my country love it or leave it, all those sort of things, and I think we are what Doris said, we're content today, we're at peace, and prosperity, but there's also sort of-you wonder-we don't believe in our leaders as much. There's a sort of a doubt about our purposes, whether we're altogether, a scandal-ridden hollow core of public life, and people going their own way. We have all the best of times, and yet, I'm not so sure this is more murky.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator, how true do you think we are today to our concept of patriotism of the past?
SAM NUNN, National Commission on Civil Renewal: The good news is I think Americans still overwhelmingly believe in the American idea, the American dream. I think 90/95 percent of the American people said they would live nowhere else, other than here, since people still want to get into this country and not out, and all of that is really good news, and we have a lot to build on.
The bad news is that people feel that our character, our moral fabric in this country is eroding, and they're worried about it. They're concerned about it. The further disturbing news is too many people feel powerless to do anything about it and disengaged, but the good news is they can do something about it, and a lot of people are doing something about it out there at the community level, and in our surveys and in our deliberations we found literally hundreds of community groups that are saying, look, nobody's going to do it for us, we're going to do it for ourselves. And they are in large numbers addressing virtually every problem that America has. Somebody out there is working to solve it. What we have got to do is get a lot more people engaged, get the people who are now spectators to be players on the field, and to go into action.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying, or are you finding that there is more civic involvement now than perhaps in recent years? Which way is the trend going?
SAM NUNN: The trend is an adverse trend, if you look at it over 20/25 years. Over the last two or three years things have picked up. Crime has gone down, and other things have picked up in terms of engagement, but not anything like we need. We're not-we have not collapsed in terms of civic engagement. We just aren't up to the tasks that confront us, because the tasks are so large. So we really do need to re-engage, and one of the things we suggested in our report was that every citizen belong to at least one community organization. This does not mean professional organization. This means an organization that's dedicated to helping the community.
Another recommendation we made is that every child in America needs at least one caring and competent adult that loves them and really cares for them, and preferably two in a marriage situation, so that's the ideal and we need to, I think, go for those goals and get people involved, and most of all, I think we need to disseminate information about how many groups are out there that need others to help them and that there really is an opportunity. I really believe a lot of people want to get involved, and they love this country and love their community, but we need to light that spark.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, give us a little historical perspective here on how important civic involvement has been in the history of this country and how central to our concept of what it means to be a patriotic American, or what it means to love our country.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It goes back to the beginning of the country. But it was easier in the old days-I agree exactly what Sen. Nunn just said-but in a way it was lot easier to do a century or two ago because we Americans would live in the same community probably for most of our lives. We knew those people. If we didn't get involved with something like the Boy Scouts or the Community Chest, you felt your neighbors would look down on you. That is not the case today when Americans move probably half a dozen or a dozen times in their lives. And there are also trade-offs. One of the reasons why we were able to have a lot of people involved in community organizations, frankly, was that women were not in the work force in a very big way until relatively recent times.
Now that when you have a lot of families with two-career couples, where both the husband and wife are working extremely hard, struggling to support a family and to raise children, it's a much greater demand on them to ask that one member of that couple or both spend a lot of time in the local organizations, so we've got to find ways to make that easier. One way to make that easier is to have the kind of prosperous economy that we've got this year.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, how intense would you say civic involvement is today compared to the past? ащ
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think certainly compared to the time that I was growing up in the 1960's it seems to be much less intense. I mean, that was the time of the Civil Rights movement. It was the time of the environmental women, the women's movement. All of those movements came from the bottom up, and they produced social change at the national level.
What you had going then that I don't think we have now is you had that energy and that fervent movement from the bottom up, but you also had leadership that was able to make these groups feel connected on the national level. You need to have that articulation of the goals nationally, as well as that change bubbling out from the back side up in a certain sense. When you think about Lyndon Johnson giving voice to that Civil Rights movement with his "We Shall Overcome" speech, when you think about John Kennedy calling for that idealism that was then used in the Peace Corps, that's what we need. There's so much fragmentation today. And in the old days, when Roosevelt gave his fireside chats, 90 percent of the radio audience was sitting there listening. You could walk down the street and you could hear every single word he said, because everybody was listening. Those events are fewer today. Even the acceptance speeches at the conventions, even the State of the Union addresses, people float from one channel to another. So in both senses we're not getting that sense of connection between the leaders and that energy at the society at large.
MARGARET WARNER: It's true, isn't it, Haynes, what your three predecessors have said, that patriotic involvement, for some it meant volunteerism and community work, for others it's social change, it's being part of groups that want to change the country, and, of course, for some it was about going to war?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Sure, right. And when you have a crisis, the country always pulls together. Pearl Harbor, the Great Depression, the Cold War, the threat of the bomb. We've talked so many times on this program. That brings unity and common purpose. We don't have that now. Happily, there isn't the prospect of war at the moment. We have unprecedented peace and prosperity, but we're voting less and less. We seem to believe less and less.
There's a sort of destructive climate in our public life, and I think that's what Senator Nunn, and we've all been talking about it, I guess, is how do you re-ignite the common purpose of the country and belief that, you know, there's no question, if you scratch any American-and I've done this in gangs in South Central Los Angeles-they still think this is the best country to be in. And yet, their own lives are pretty horrible. So they'd like to have a little more of that peace, so there's an opportunity there to grab. This is a fascinating period of time. I applaud Senator Nunn. I hope he can re-ignite us.
MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Nunn, does it-is it harder to ignite patriotism or overall topic care without-in the absence of an enemy-in the absence of either a recent war or the prospect of war?
SAM NUNN: Well, I don't think there's any question there is a harder challenge today. I think that Doris and Haynes have said-have been-that Michael is exactly right. The paradox is, Margaret, if America leads the world in power and influence and wealth, and certainly in security. But what we also lead the world in violent crime, in murder, in pornography, in teenage suicide, in divorce, in teenage pregnancies, in abortions, in imprisonment, so there's a paradox here.
On one side we are more secure and prosperous. On the other, you could say on the social side, we do have a crisis. And I think it's that side of the equation that we need to rally people around. I would also agree very much with Doris, it's not the grassroots versus leadership at the top. It's both. We have to have both. I think grassroots right now is out in front of leadership.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all four very much.
SAM NUNN: Thank you.