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FACT: In every century of America’s history we have been the beneficiaries of sacrifice and selflessness in the face of great odds to build a stronger country: The Founding Fathers of the eighteenth century fought a bloody revolution for freedom. The great losses of the Civil War were necessary to preserve the union. The pioneers who pushed west endured countless hardships as they opened the rest of the continent. The generation that came of age in the Great Depression helped save the world in World War II and gave us modern America.
QUESTION: A hundred years from now, what will be our indelible and measureable legacy? What will our grandchildren say of us? Of our country? Historians will not judge our time by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or the Tea Party alone. We’re all in the dock.
This book really began when I found myself at the intersection of history and my life while on assignment in Europe. It was June 5, 2009, a cloudy day with intermittent rain showers, and I was standing on the terrace of the Royal Palace in Dresden, Germany, awaiting the arrival of the young president of the United States, Barack Obama, for a Today show and Nightly News interview.
Mentally, I reviewed the loose ends of my appointment: What should I ask about his upcoming visit to the notorious Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald? How would he compare his challenges as president with those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II? What did he plan for his speech the next morning, at the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Normandy invasion?
In several personal trips to that stretch of Norman beach and the windblown headlands, on solitary walks through the simple white headstones at Colleville-sur-Mer, the American cemetery where so many young Americans are buried, I have come to see the invasion as what should have been a template for our modern world. It represented political cooperation and vision; military genius; and courage, sacrifice, and shared determination to defeat a great unambiguous evil. It was a distillation of all the heroic efforts to roll back the darkness of fascism and make the world, if not perfect, then more just.
Now I was with a young American president who would face his own tests of vision, courage, and political acumen in the twenty-first century. For the moment my more prosaic considerations were dictated by the imperatives of broadcast news. Was the Today show ready to take in the video feed, edit the interview, and get it in shape for that morning’s telecast? Given the subject and the setting, these are the occasions when great thoughts should prevail, but they would have to be deferred until the logistics were satisfied.
President Obama arrived right on schedule, surrounded by his posse of top aides. He strolled with his easy athletic gait along the walkway of the magnificent Baroque building, past the priceless porcelain vases collected by Saxony kings, and gave me a soft shout-out. “Hey, Brokaw—we’re here.”
This was in the early months of his first term and he was casually confident, as yet untested and, oh, so young. He had just arrived from Cairo, where he had given a well-received speech to the Islamic world on the need to find a more peaceful path to the future. I had just come from Berlin, where, I told him, I had been the night the wall came down in 1989. He laughed and said, “I remember; I watched. I was in law school at the time.”
Law school? And you’re now the president? I was about to be fifty when the Soviet Union collapsed; it was just yesterday in my life, and he was at Harvard, a student with a promising but unresolved future.
After a moment or two of casual banter the president took his place and with his characteristic ease responded to questions about the Holocaust, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israel, his great-uncle’s experience in World War II, and the moral character of the American people.
That character, he suggested, has to be refreshed. “The biggest lesson we learned from World War II,” he said, “is America can do anything when it puts its mind to it, but we gotta exercise those muscles.”
He went on, “I think they’ve atrophied a bit. We’re soft in ways that are profoundly dangerous to our long-term prosperity and security.” Here he hesitated slightly. “And, you know, we—we’ve gotta start working those—moral muscles and service muscles and sacrifice muscles a little more. That’s still in the American character, and I’m confident we’ll be seeing it in the years to come.”
As he was leaving, I suggested he try to find a solitary moment the next day when he would be in Colleville-sur-Mer, the American cemetery on a bluff above Omaha Beach. “Walk through those headstones with just your thoughts,” I said, “and be prepared to have your knees buckle.”
As I have learned in more than a half-dozen visits to that landscape of simple white tombstones, the initial response of first-time visitors to the American cemetery, and the beaches, is often tearful, but I was confident such a walk would generate more than an emotional reaction for the president.
The lingering lesson of Omaha Beach is the deeply affecting value of common cause supported by uncommon valor against monstrous tyranny. It is a lesson that need not be reserved for great wars alone.
Since my first visits to Normandy, Pearl Harbor, and other World War II battle sites, I’ve often been unduly agitated by petty feuds or tempted to abandon vexing problems that require more personal investment than I anticipated. Then I imagine being strafed in a surprise attack or wading off a Higgins boat into the face of withering fire and knowing that if I survive it is just the beginning of another year of hellish combat, lost buddies, and horrific sights. It is a useful perspective and, judging from the personal accounts of strangers who have approached me over the years to describe their visits to Normandy, it is a common reaction.
In Dresden, the cloudy skies brightened and I took my place for the Today show transmission, which went smoothly.
I’ve been in this line of work for almost half a century and while a presidential interview is always memorable, the following day you’re off to another development, in pursuit of another news maker, asking, “What’s next?”
This time, however, the occasion, setting, circumstances, and subjects lingered. I wondered how this young president and all of us would be tested anew. The answers came swiftly enough, especially for President Obama. Following a triumphant tour, the president returned home to the realities of a severely broken American economy—one so shattered it had ignited a national dialogue about values and proportion, greed and appropriate reward, and the role of the government in the marketplace.
Unemployment rose from 8.1 percent in March 2009 to a persistent 9.6 percent in the summer and fall of 2010 and then to 9.8 just before the midterm elections. That number didn’t reflect those off the statistical grid who had given up looking for work. Confidence in the young president and his team drawn largely from the academic and political worlds plummeted heading into November.
President Obama was vilified as a socialist out to destroy the country, and questions were raised about his birthplace, despite a newspaper account and evidence from the state of Hawaii that, in fact, he was born in that state on August 4, 1961.
A national libertarian movement called the Tea Party arose out of a rage against government spending, anxiety about the economy, and the perceived distance between the priorities of Washington and those of grassroots America.
The president’s failure to aggressively attack unemployment and his concentration instead on a massive and complex health care reform law troubled even his most ardent supporters. By the fall, national polls showed that by a margin of four to one, likely voters felt their personal finances were worse off in the last few years.
The president and his team responded by relying on the power of personality, sending Obama into the heartland for backyard sessions with “just folks” and into large rallies with the party faithful.
Meanwhile, the Tea Party derided a federal stimulus program, reform of the big financial institutions, and an auto industry rescue as more examples of government run amok. In fits and starts Obama tried to find his voice as a populist and then as a healer, but the troubled economy resisted his charms and policies.
In the November 2010 congressional elections, the president, in his own word, took a “shellacking.” Democrats lost sixty-three seats in the House, dropping to their lowest level in that chamber since 1940. They barely hung onto the Senate, encouraging Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to immediately announce his goal was to deny President Obama a second term.