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Commentary & Opinion

Ralph Gardner Jr: I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy

That old typing exercise – “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country” – seems relevant in a way that it never has before. With the Republic at mortal risk Donald Trump, strangely, has made me feel more patriotic than at any time since my Cold War childhood.

I was such a flag-waving eight-year-old that my mother, whose family had fled to the United States from Europe ahead of World War II, feared she was raising a blindly patriotic chauvinist.

My favorite movie, when it would play for a full week during the 1960’s on WOR’s Million Dollar Movie in New York City, was “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring Jimmy Cagney. The story of performer and composer George M. Cohan, it was filled with such patriotic anthems as “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and, of course, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

My patriotism even withstood the upheavals of the Vietnam War era. When I’d watch the Stars and Stripes being raised at the Olympic Games and our National Anthem played as the United States ran up the medal tally I’d get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.

So it came as something of a shock when President Trump referred to “American Carnage” at his inauguration. And then a few weeks later, during an interview with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, sought to defend Vladimir Putin.

“There are a lot of killers,” Trump told O’Reilly. “You think our country’s so innocent.”

I’m not completely naïve about the United States and its flaws. They are too numerous to name here. But the country always served as a beacon of hope. Please excuse the clichés, but this nation was as much an idea as a geographic location on a map of the world. It was a place where freedom and opportunity could flourish, where what was good, creative and ambitious about humanity exceeded its capacity for corruption and evil.

One had to look no further than my own family. We’d been welcomed here and prospered. My mother told me the United States was the first place that ever felt like home to her.

One week after 9/11 I had the opportunity as a journalist to accompany New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani as he took former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by NYPD launch down the Hudson River to Ground Zero. We were on our way to observe “The Pile,” as rescue workers called the still smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center.

The damage was apocalyptic, giant chucks taken out of the surrounding skyscrapers from the collapsing Twin Towers. And in the middle of it a vast debris field made sacred by the atomized remains of thousands of innocents that had died on that morning.

Kissinger pronounced himself “unprepared”. He added, “It’s a testimony to what evil can do in the world.”

I had a similar reaction. What struck me most was that, despite its scale -- that of a natural disaster; a hurricane, tsunami, or earthquake – this destruction was man-made, intentional. It reminded you how thin and fragile what we describe as “civilization” really is, but also how impressive. How it bends, ever so slightly, towards altruism. How it stands as testimony to our ability to keep chaos at bay through institutions and norms.

If the rest of us thought the same nihilistic way the death cult that brought down the World Trade Center did this on-going social experiment we describe as humanity would have ended in flames thousands of years ago.

And that experiment isn’t over. It’s a work in progress. There’s no guarantee it’s going to succeed. And now we’re faced with one of the greatest tests in our history to the idea of America. No other president has challenged the results of an election even before it’s held. No other President has sided with the president of Russia over his own intelligence community.

And the most chilling part of it is that substantial numbers of Americans seem to admire the bully. I’m not going to attempt to analyze their thinking because it’s unfathomable to me. But one thing I am confident about is that should Trump’s values prevail – first and foremost that truth is subjective and that 200,000 deaths can be spun to seem like a good thing (it could have been worse) – chaos and decline will be the inevitable result.

David Sanger, the New York Times’ chief national security correspondent recently wrote, “His unwillingness to say he would abide by the result, and his disinformation campaign about the integrity of the American electoral system went beyond anything President Vladimir V. Putin could have imagined. All Putin has to do now is amplify the president’s message, which the Russian leader has already begun to do.”

An American President in cahoots with Moscow used to be the stuff of Cold War political thrillers. Sixty years later it looks closer to prophesy.

As the President remains in quarantine, only we can change the story, curb the pandemic and protect the truth so that our children’s children can still be ambushed by a lump in their throat, as I once was, when the National Anthem plays and they see the Stars and Strips rise at some future Olympic Games.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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