Several weeks ago, I flew into Washington, DC, much as I had done for the first time back in March, 1963. Flying over government buildings and monuments, I felt the same emotions overcome me as they had when John F. Kennedy was president. But now the reality seemed to be seriously tainted.
Long before going to Washington as a fifteen-year-old, I had been concerned about problems facing the United States and the world. When I thought of solutions, my mind immediately looked to DC for answers to our domestic problems and the United Nations to hopefully play a key role in solving international issues.
When in Washington, it wasn’t just seeing the White House, the Capitol and the Supreme Court. It was walking by the Department of Justice (where JFK’s brother, Robert was Attorney-General), the Department of Health, Education & Welfare, the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, even the Department of Commerce and the FBI. When I returned to Washington for college in 1965, the Great Society was being enacted and that lead to more departments aimed helping us solve a problem such as Housing & Urban Development, Transportation and Education. Not too many years after that, even Republican Richard Nixon presided over the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and expansion of the Office of Economic Opportunity (War on Poverty).
Two rhetorical questions were always present for me:
- Wasn’t it obvious that our country had lots of problems, most having to do with poverty and racial strife?
- Since we are a country, don’t the solutions naturally come from our seat of government in Washington, DC?
I thought that in 1963 and still believe it. But as I flew into Reagan1 National Airport, I could not understand how hundreds of Republican members of Congress see the same views as I, yet they look at the city with disdain. They neither seem to care about the problems we have (witness wanting to cut $800 billion from Medicare to provide tax relief for the wealthy) nor do they see their jobs as Members of Congress as being central to solving the problems (witness their love of shoving responsibility from DC to inept state governments). How could you be elected to a job where you could do so much for your country, so much for your district or state, and instead you want to destroy what is helping the disenfranchised and you want to take the word “hope” out of our vocabulary?
Through the years I have taken students to Washington, DC. We have always looked at it as an opportunity to learn about what the federal government does and what it could do to improve quality of life. We have tried to challenge students with questions that require critical thinking. Hopefully they could become part of the solutions to our many problems, and in reflection, it seems that quite a few of them have.
I worry that school trips to Washington, DC now focus more on the military and a conventional definition of patriotism. That is disconcerting because if students do not first experience Washington, DC without a sense of hope and commitment to positive change, then we are indeed in deep trouble.
Because Republicans focus almost exclusively on individual liberties (except for the ones they don’t like such as a woman’s right to choose) at the expense of promoting the common good, they have been tearing apart our social and economic safety nets. The legislation and court rulings that they have undone can be repaired in time. But the damage that they have done to a sense of hope and vision as to how we solve our national problems is more insidious. Maybe we must go back a few decades and take a page from Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. and “keep hope alive.”
1 How can you name an airport after a president who broke the Air Traffic Controllers Union?