Mrs. Obama wasn't alive when John Kennedy inspired Americans by proclaiming, "the torch has been passed to a new generation." She wasn't among television viewers who watched with pride as Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon, taking "one giant leap for mankind." She didn't hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tell dedicated followers, "I have a dream..."
For many of us who lived through those historic events it is fair to say that American pride never again reached such heights. The tragic events of 9/11 provided a chance; pride swelled briefly as the nation rallied and sought to regroup. But the opportunity to chart a new course after 9/11 was squandered when America's patriotism became entangled in its xenophobia.
In recent years, pride has been gradually co-opted by those who believe it is un-American to seek a better nation. Pride in a flag pin has become more important than the passion that beats in the heart beneath it. Pride in our military has mistakenly been defined as unequivocal support for misguided missions. Pride in our economic strength has too often come at the expense of the hungry, the sick, and the poor.
Blind pride is false.
America needs a new economic strategy, a more reasonable military posture, and immediate action to correct energy policies. But more than anything, America needs inspiration.
One source of inspiration was hushed during the presidential campaign because voters and candidates were reluctant to acknowledge the issue of race — not as a negative, but as a remarkably positive step in the nation's maturation. After all, if Barack Obama wins, his August birth date will someday become a national holiday; his picture will grace our currency; schools will be named in his honor. He may turn out to be a great leader, but his legacy will be as the first African American president. And for everyone alive today that should be a source of overwhelming pride.
Then there is Obama's charisma, reassuring smile, and eloquence. When future generations read about an Obama Presidency they will focus on how these factors inspired Americans to heal themselves. A nation with renewed pride will discover that no challenge is too great. Other nations will look more favorably on a reawakened America.
We are at the starting point for the work of a new generation. No candidate or cause since JFK has inspired America's high school and college students the way Obama's campaign has. This generation has been in a deep sleep of self-absorption, seemingly unaware of what it even means to have real pride in America.
Michelle Obama's emotions last winter were similar to those of Caroline Kennedy, who wrote: "I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans."
Those who recall the magic of the Kennedy years thirst not so much for its policy as for its purpose. Like Obama, Kennedy campaigned for "change" — a change in the nation’s collective spirit.
As the election nears, America's rediscovered pride is already showing.
© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.