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We the People, in order to form a more perfect Union . . .

Last night in Tucson, the one time Professor of Constitutional Law read us the most important part of our founding document in his own remarkable way.  His moving address pays tribute again and again to those opening words (which I have to make an effort to avoid singing as I type them).  

And one can see, in a line drawn from Boston to Philadelphia to Tucson, that this single phrase more than any other explains the politics of President Obama.  He tells us, again and again what he told us last night.   The foundation of our Constitution and our nation is "we the people," who have chosen union above separation.  Our legacy, and our duty to each other, is that we must strive continuously to perfect it.

I am not a breaking news junkie.  I rarely get pulled into the moment by moment drama of an unfolding story.  I prefer to dip in, check up, and move on.  But Saturday I could not stop watching my Twitter feed, refreshing my RSS reader, desperate to know what was happening.  After spending the better part of three years at political events large and small I could envision the scene and the mix of everyday people, elected officials, activists and professional staff who must have been there.  And the horror of having something I know so well turn to violence and death shook me deeply.  

And then it got worse.  Because the more we learned and debated about what might have led a young man to bring and fire a gun that day, the less we knew.  Our anger and anguish and desperate desire to impose accountability for the reckless deployment of violent imagery and rhetoric degenerated.  It became a rush to judgment on the one hand and a retreat to ludicrous countercharges on the other.

The real and necessary public conversation about the relationship between violence and politics drew further away.  And so when I heard the President was going to Tucson I felt relief.  I knew that he would give me what I needed to hear.  I knew he would be able to move the conversation away from merely debating contested facts and onto the terrain of shared values.  As I wrote in AdamB's diary on Tuesday:

We need to be having a conversation about VALUES.  About how American values are inherently inconsistent with talking about people you disagree with politically as less than human or deserving of harm. Whether it directly caused Tucson or indirectly caused it or was totally unrelated doesn't matter, it is still wrong and harmful to our democracy.

Ask and you shall receive.

I have little to add to those who praise the eloquence and power of last night's address mourning the dead and celebrating the living.  But perhaps because we have been talking so much about last week's reading of the Constitution on the House floor, I have something to unearth.  What I heard most clearly last night was our obligation to perfect our union.  The President's deeply personal depiction of the everyday people and public servants gathered outside a grocery store on a Saturday morning brought "We the People" movingly to life.  And his call to transcend the use of hatred and violence for political advantage in favor of honor, compassion and dignity unerringly found a basis for union.

This President knows how often we have failed the promise of union.  In Philadelphia he laid out our nation's history of slavey and racism, embedded in the Constitution signed across the street from where he spoke.  In Boston he told us we had "more work to do" to make economic and social justice a reality in America.

And the toxic response of a small but vocal minority to his own election, with undercurrents of illegitimacy and violence, seems to make a mockery of any vision of red states and blue states sharing one union.

But this President also believes, as he has said many times and said again last night, that there is a core set of values that unites us as Americans.  That is the most famous message of his speech in Boston:  

It is that fundamental belief -- it is that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sisters' keeper -- that makes this country work.

It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: "E pluribus unum," out of many, one.

Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.

And he believes that the most important thing about our nation's history and political culture is the drive to perfect our union, as he said in Philadelphia:

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society.  It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country -- a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.  But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change.  That is true genius of this nation.  What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

 

I, like the President, am driven by the stories of hope in our history.  Because we fought a war over slavery and birthed a civil rights movement and amended the Constitution over and over seeking a more perfect union.  Because we still have nine year old girls who run for student council and who have women in Congress to look up to as role models.  Because a 61-year-old white woman and a young gay Latino man ran toward the bullets in Tucson with no thought other than to help.  

That is the America President Obama wants to live in, and so do I.  And since I am the mother of two children, one of whom, like Christina, is nine years old, that's the more perfect union we must strive for to do them justice:

And in Christina ... in Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.

So deserving of our love.

And so deserving of our good example. . . . If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost.  The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives -- to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. . . . only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.

Boston and Philadelphia are the two prior speeches the President has given I know virtually by heart.  I have used them for teaching, and so I have watched, listened to and read them many times.  It looks like Tucson will be a third.  And if the message of Boston is that there are values We the People share as Americans worth celebrating, and the message of Philadelphia is that we can and should seek to perfect our union, then the message of Tucson takes them one step further.  Only when we recognize that part of our history, and love our country and each other the better for it, can we hope to achieve it.

Originally posted to Femlaw on Thu Jan 13, 2011 at 10:50 AM PST.

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