This week I sat down by my TV and watched two shows. The first was PBS' "The American Experience: The Panama Canal." The second was "The State of the Union: January 25th, 2011."
In 1957 aboard the USS Wisconsin (BB-64) I transited the Panama Canal en route to Panama City, Panama, and Valparaiso, Chile, as a trainee on Midshipman Cruise Baker. Just three years later I would transit the Suez Canal aboard the USS Essex (CVS-9) en route to Aden and Karachi, Pakistan, as a Navy pilot headed for a naval exercise in the Indian Ocean with units of CENTO, the Central Treaty Organization (known as the Baghdad Pact). During my Navy cruises we were given a lot of background on these two canals - how they came to be constructed. Who were the leaders who succeeded and who were those who failed? When the United States of America opened and dedicated "Our canal" in 1914, we had surpassed the French and every other country to emerge as the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth. In the decade of construction we had overcome tremendous obstacles - disease, jungle, and mountains - to connect the shipping lanes of the two great oceans. The dream of seafarers for centuries.
When President Obama took an hour to describe the State of our Union today I took special note of his remark that "Americans do Big Things." This is what my elementary education taught me 65 years ago. In the decades since there have been great national achievements, to be sure. But, since the dawn of the 21st Century there have been substantial failures. How, I wondered, will this president convince enough of us that we can even "attempt" any Big Things today?
Looking at the screen I was pleasantly surprised to see a Congress that could sit and applaud and rise to their feet as one body, not two. I listened for the issues and for the promises that always fill these politcal occasions. It was a hopeful speech. Uplifting and positive. Calling on national pride. Honoring the sacrifice of other people's children in war. Sharing the sorrow and pain of the shooting victims in Southern Arizona. Remembering those suffering today from joblessness and foreclosure. Now what actions will we take to deal with our challenges?
The challenges are many. Assault weapons readily available for anyone. Corporations still being rewarded after decades of exporting our jobs and shipping actual factory equipment to foreign countries to exploit the cheapest labor on earth. Bankers, lenders, and hedge funders who cheated and lied their way to enormous wealth still walk unpunished on Wall Street today.
It's a long list of challenges. Including those media moguls and talking heads who exploit the news media, old and new. Confused and distracted, we listen and watch, searching for honesty and truth.
I want to believe, Mr. President. I, too, was once involved with Big Things.