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September 21st, 2017

Insight

I hear America singing

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 10, 2015

Disquiet lives here. Quietly but ominously. Unseen, it creeps up in the dark of night like Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird," rustling like the wind in the trees. It's here, you just can't see it. But you can feel it, hear it. Eerie.

Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast -- or stir it up. Back in public school in Shreveport, La., half the class would leap to its feet at the first stirring chords of "Dixie," the other half at the first notes of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and some for both, but as the years went by, the adherents of "Dixie" gave way to those of the "Battle Hymn" -- another sign of the South's final submission to the Union, one nation indivisible.

Think of the scene from the classic movie "Casablanca" in which the German occupiers compete with the French patriots in the bar of Rick's Cafe Americain, in which the Germans raise their voices in the chorus of "Deutschland uber Alles," joined by any French collaborators they can attract, notably a French mistress. But as the French counter them with the "Marseillaise," the Frenchwoman grows misty-eyed and can no longer control herself but joins in the rousing rendition of her country's national anthem. Such is the power of song. It brings out our true selves.

Peggy Noonan, the former White House speechwriter who's now a weekly columnist for the Wall Street Journal, confesses that she likes to write to the theme songs of movies. Among her favorites: The themes of "Spartacus," heroic and stirring, and "On the Waterfront" with its evocation of great, grimy American cities and Palookaville in general, not to mention "The Last of the Mohicans." The cornier, the better. Her favorite? There's no doubt in her mind:

"But for me, always, the greatest movie score, the one I listen to when I need it, is the most perfect pairing of story and music in the history of film: 'The Best Years of Our Lives.' " Which brings back scenes from the movie, too. Its plot:

"Three men coming home from World War II wind up by chance in the nose of a beat-up bomber, itself heading home to the junkyard. Suddenly at dawn, after a long night of flight, they see America unfurling below them -- the Midwest, and now Boone City, their (fictional) home. There's the stadium where one of them played high school ball. There's the bank where one of them worked. ... The men look down at what they'd left behind years before, and it's still there." The music swells and soars. Like the sound of America in flight.

What a contrast with today's whining, sniping political discourse -- if you could call it discourse -- full as it is of snappy comebacks and failed gotchas. Not to mention the bloated braggadocio of Donald Trump. Just tune in to one of these "debates" among this year's contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. Sad. And depressing.

Miss Noonan's comments inspired the thought: If only one of those candidates understood the American people's yearning -- and need -- for patriotism, not just pap. He -- or she -- just might catch the country's imagination, our hopes and dreams, our yearning to be united again, the way a Ronald Reagan or a Franklin Roosevelt brought us together. What a magnificent difference that might make. How we all must wish for such a leader again. And to hear America singing again.

Boo Radley, like Atticus Finch in the book and later the movie, turned out to be a hero -- a force for good and not evil, a source of hope, not fear. Disquiet, it turns out, was only a prelude to assurance. That's America for you -- if we would but hear her singing.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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