When America Has No National Voice

Waking up this morning on the Madison isthmus is surreal.

The sun is shining and the bright blue skies are welcoming.  Morning Dove babes that left their nest yesterday are being fed by parents on our lawn’s arbor.  There is a seemingly calm wonder to the day.

But just a number of blocks away on the isthmus a very different scene greeted the early morning hours in this city.

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Tenacious and violent protestors, probably more accurately called anarchists, broke windows, spray-painted graffiti, and looted stores on State Street as the three local news stations reported on the scenes for over 6 hours. A police cruiser was dramatically set ablaze and driven down a street.

This absurd and shameful behavior is playing out in cities all over the nation, and for some places over continuous days. Nothing of this scope has happened in our land since the tumultuous times in 1968.  As I sat and watched the events over the past nights, and especially being glued to the television as my city was the target, I thought of what was missing.

Yes, common sense and any allotment of decency is certainly absent from the violent events.  What started out as protests around the nation which were correctly grounded in righteous anger over the death of George Floyd has been hijacked by a loathsome and disgusting array of the worst elements this country has produced…other than for Derek Chauvin, the cop who killed the black man.

But Saturday night as I sat trying to eat a late dinner and talk with various local folks on the phone one glaring fact came back to me over and over.  There was no one able to take to a podium, or hold a microphone and stand on the back of a truck, or call into a national news program and speak the words this nation must hear from a leader.

The vacuum was–and pardon me for using a trite overused oxymoron–deafening.  What this nation needed, craved, and once had over our long history was a national leader with credibility who could ask for calm, speak to our historic path towards justice, empathize with those grieving as a direct family of the victim, and then wrap us all into the common family of a nation moving forward.  

That did not happen this weekend when we desperately needed it.

As I watched the news I thought back to one of those images from 1968 that even those born this century have surely seen and heard about as it speaks to the best of who we are in this nation when others lower themselves to being their worst.

Robert Kennedy was that election year, landing in Indianapolis the night Reverand Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis.  Kennedy had planned to rally in a place in the city considered dangerous to the point police refused to escort him to, but nonetheless, Kennedy found his way to the location.  When he got there he realized those who were gathered were not aware of the killing.  It was then Robert acted as a leader for the nation.

Climbing onto a flatbed truck and wearing Jack Kennedy’s overcoat, Robert gave what is considered one of the most eloquent extemporaneous speeches of the 20th century.

“I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.” Gasps and shrieks met his words. “Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling,” he said. “I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”

Our nation needs a lot of things, my readers and friends, but it needs more than anything else a single unifying, credible, grounded, calming, reasoned, and adult voice to lift us up and beyond the times in which we now find ourselves.  We know the impact over the arc of our national story when we have had such people to comfort, guide, prod, and convince the nation of what needed to be done.

We are now seeing the absence of such a voice, and dealing with the dreadful consequences. 

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