Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2004 / 21 Elul, 5764
Schwarzenegger's homage to America
NEW YORK Rarely do speeches at a political convention have much of a shelf life after the delegates have gone home. Those that do, like Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech in 1964, are usually memorable for the harm they did the speaker's cause. But if ever a convention speech deserved to be remembered for all the right reasons, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's address to the Republican National Convention last week.
The California governor wasn't the only headliner who spoke well. From John McCain's defense of the war in Iraq to Zell Miller's fiery stemwinder, there was plenty of fine oratory. But no convention address was as uplifting as Schwarzenegger's profession of gratitude to his adopted country. And no other speaker conveyed more stirringly the conservative creed that unites nearly all Republicans even those, like Schwarzenegger, usually thought of as "moderates."
The United States is routinely described as a nation of immigrants, but for millions of us, the immigrant experience is at best an abstraction. Unless you or one of your loved ones was born someplace else, it can be hard to empathize with the yearning that drives so many human beings to uproot their lives and set out for America. John Kerry harshly condemns George Bush for the fact that America is disliked around the world, but Schwarzenegger's words were a reminder that vast numbers of people would give anything to be Americans.
As a child, he recalled, "when the teacher spoke about America, I would daydream about coming here. . . . Everything about America seemed so big to me so open, so possible." Amid the cynicism of a political convention, where everything is reduced to a calculus of political gain and loss, it was refreshing to hear a message of unabashed love.
"I will never forget that day 21 years ago when I raised my hand and took the oath of citizenship," Schwarzenegger said. "Everything I have my career, my success, my family I owe to America. In this country, it doesn't make any difference where you were born. It doesn't make any difference who your parents were. It doesn't make any difference if, like me, you couldn't even speak English until you were in your twenties. . . . America gave me opportunities, and my immigrant dreams came true."
Some would-be immigrants dream of America because they want to become rich. Far more dream of America because they want to live in freedom. Schwarzenegger described the fear he felt as a boy in Europe, when the car his uncle was driving had to stop at a Soviet checkpoint. "I wasn't an action hero back then. And I remember how scared I was that the soldiers would pull my father or my uncle out of the car, and I'd never see him again."
As he spoke those words, a hush fell over Madison Square Garden. High above the floor, a sign reading "Al-Jazeera" hung in front of one of the television skyboxes, and I wondered: What are they thinking, those Al-Jazeera viewers in countries like Syria and Libya and Saudi Arabia? How many of them dream of fleeing to America of leaving behind forever the fear that comes with life under dictatorship? How much would they sacrifice to know the liberties that everyone in this room takes for granted?
"We are still the lamp lighting the world especially for those who struggle," Schwarzenegger said. "No matter in what labor camp they slave no matter in what injustice they're trapped they hear our call. They see our light. And they feel the pull of our freedom. They come here, as I did, because they believe. . . . They come because their hearts say to them, as mine did, 'If only I can get to America.' "
Democrats and the media made a lot of noise last week about the supposedly false front the Republicans were putting up a facade of moderate speakers designed to hide the party's conservative core. Nothing could have been less accurate. All week long, the convention reverberated with the chords of Reaganite conservatism: the power of liberty, the virtues of the market, the goodness of America, and the imperative of fighting tyranny. And no speech evoked the Gipper's legacy more truly than Schwarzenegger's.
"If you believe that government should be accountable to the people, not the people to the government," he said, "then you are a Republican! If you believe a person should be treated as an individual, not as a member of an interest group then you are a Republican! If you believe your family knows how to spend your money better than the government does then you are a Republican! . . . If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope of democracy in the world then you are a Republican! And . . . if you believe we must be fierce and relentless and terminate terrorism then you are a Republican!"
Whatever may divide them, on these beliefs the GOP is as one. Schwarzenegger is no ersatz Republican, he is the real McCoy. But more than that, he is a real American. His remarks last week served a partisan cause, but they were not mere political rhetoric.
They were also a beautiful and moving testimonial to freedom and democracy a speech to remember.
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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.
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