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Jewish World Review / June 30, 1998 / 6 Iyar, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom

IT TAKES A POTEMKIN VILLAGE to make a president appreciate home. Before departing for the world's largest remaining gulag, Bill Clinton allowed as how he was homesick and tired and couldn't wait to get back to Arkansas.

Some of us here in Little Rock know just how he feels.

So hurry home, Mr. President, after your China Syndrome has passed, and learn to breathe free again. It's a great feeling to be back home -- the sight of Old Glory after seeing her only in a foreign land, the new look of the familiar, the feel of home and, for those first few blessed steps toward customs, the knowledge that once again you stand on American soil. It's wonderful to be back in a free country.

One day the whole world will know freedom, tyrants will disappear and all mankind will stand erect, free of chains and slavery of every kind. On that day, no one will fear secret police and kangaroo courts; all will know they can speak and write and worship freely, and enjoy the fruit of their own labor without worrying about the ever-present eye and all-grasping hand of The Leader, or The Party, or The State.

On that glorious day, Mr. President, there will be no more whimpering apologists for oppression, and no more excuses for those who would twist and distort life into some cramped reflection of their own ideological tics. On that day, all will speak their own minds and look their neighbors in the eye when they do it, without fear or flattery. No one will cringe before power or search for euphemisms to justify appeasing it. On that day, Mr. President, all the world will be new, and everyone, of whatever race or clime or nationality, will in one sense be American, that is, free.

Yes, hurry home, Mr. President, where you belong, and where you can breathe free again. Freer than even the most cosseted and protected and high-ranking visitor to an all-powerful state that nevertheless trembles at even the barest mention of freedom.

Come home, Mr. President, for home is not just a place, it is a state of mind. Just as America is more than a country. Magnificent and majestic, lovely and pleasant, stark and grand as this sweep of a continent is, America is far more than a place. "When an American says that he loves his country, he means not only that he loves the New England hills, the prairies glistening in the sun, the wide and rising plains, the great mountains, and the sea. He means that he loves an inner air, an inner light in which freedom lives and in which a man can draw a breath of self-respect." -- Adlai Stevenson, August 27, 1952.

Mr. Stevenson may have said it best, for I have yet to come across as good a definition of the American spirit, certainly not lately. Adlai Stevenson was from Illinois, the land of Lincoln, another distinctive state of the American union and dream. And he knew of what he spoke in those heavy August days of 1952, when another evil empire proclaimed that liberty was only an artifact of a few national cultures and bourgeois economies, and that The Party knew best -- and would always know best.

Adlai Stevenson knew better. He knew that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He did not bow and scrape when, in his own measured voice, quietly and unforgettably, he proclaimed his American truth. For he was an American and felt no need either to make apologies for freedom or to pay lip service to it, or carefully balance its interests with that of tyranny and call it statesmanship. He was an American, and freedom came naturally to him; he did not need to strain for a relationship with it.

Adlai Stevenson did not pretend that evil was something other than it is, or prettify his thoughts lest he offend tyrants. He never accustomed himself to speaking tact to temporal power; he was a man of the world, as well as an American, and he knew how to do many things, but being a free man from a free state, he could not ignore slavery or even say polite things to it. As the Soviet delegate to the U.N.'s Security Council discovered during the Cuban missile crisis, when Ambassador Stevenson demolished one lie after another out of Moscow.

Ambassador Stevenson knew something else, and he knew it in his bones. You could hear it in his voice back in August of 1952, when Communism was still The Wave of the Future, rather than what it is now: a crumpled giant, a paper tiger full of holes held up only by brittle habit and a little help from the gullible and fearful.

Even back then, when the world was a far more fearful place and the light had not yet begun to break, Adlai Stevenson could sense the emptiness of the tyranny that sought to cow us, and foresee its dismal end, and feel the whole inflated superstructure of Communism tremble at even a whisper, even a thought, of freedom. For he concluded his address that august day with these words, and this charge:

"Let us proclaim our faith in the future of man. Of good heart and good cheer, faithful to ourselves and our traditions, we can lift the cause of freedom, the cause of free men, so high no power on earth can tear it down. We can pluck this flower, safety, from this nettle, danger. Living, speaking, like men -- like Americans -- we can lead the way."

We still can. There is no need to cower. For as Adlai Stevenson told his listeners that day, "We are embarked on a great adventure." We still are. Freedom is not won in a day or a year, once and for all. It must be won anew every ordinary day. It is not something fragile and rare to be rolled out on special occasions, nor is it an embarrassment be hidden away on state occasions. It is not some dutiful platitude, but a call to action. It is not some curious American folkway that stops at the water's edge or something to be traded away when the price is right. It is the air we breathe, the vision we see, the aspiration we cannot live without, lest we become something other than ourselves, something low and cringing.

Yes, come home, Mr. President. To America. To Freedom. We'll keep the light on.


6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.