One of the earliest speeches to the delegates of the Democratic National Convention, Tuesday evening, came from a man in a white cowboy hat - Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. It kind of set the theme for the night."Barack Obama has lived the American Dream," he said. "He has walked in our shoes."
Talking about enabling the American Dream is a timeworn rhetorical tool in our politics, but Salazar transcended the cliche by saying that being successful is possible, if you value your family, your friends, and those who you help along the way. "Tell me who you walk with, and I'll tell you who you are," he related, quoting his father, in Spanish and English, adding, "Barack Obama walks with us."
That was one of a series of speeches that were variations on the theme about the path you walk, who you encounter, and how you deal with them. There is a way to live the kind of strong and generous life that it takes to achieve the American Dream. It requires acknowledging who raised you, who you were raised with, where you are and where you are going.
It's not just being generous for the sake of your good grace. It's helping your neighbor because that contributes to the fulfillment of the American Dream.
"My family's story isn't special," the keynote speaker, San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julian Castro, told the partisan crowd, after recounting his humble beginnings as the son of a single, immigrant mother. "What's special," he said, "is the America that makes our story possible. Ours is a nation like no other, a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation. No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward."
And while "forward" is a main theme of the campaign, the Democrats who spoke, Tuesday, seemed to be emphasizing that knowing how to find that direction on the path is something that comes from the values you were taught as a child. "We learned about honesty and integrity – that the truth matters…" Mrs. Obama explained about the commonality of her and the president's upbringing, "that you don’t take shortcuts or play by your own set of rules, and success doesn’t count unless you earn it fair and square... and we were taught to value everyone’s contribution and treat everyone with respect."
Her husband drew on that lesson, she said, because, "as President, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are."
That's why, she continued, "he believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity…you do not slam it shut behind you…you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed."
Likewise, Gov. Ted Strickland (D-OH) acknowledged, our success also depends on helping the president. "America is standing strong, today" he said, "Barack Obama has stood up for us, and now, by God, we will stand up for him."
In the end, then, the American Dream cannot just be measured by the size of your bank account, even if you bank offshore and it "needs a passport," as Gov. Strickland joked about Mitt Romney's offshore accounts. A real American success story is about the way we take care of one another. As the first lady declared, "...for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives."
Maybe that's why the Democrats used to play "Happy Days are Here, Again," at all their conventions, because it was they who created the infrastructure of people helping others, through their government, to become successful, and instilled in our values the faithful belief that our countrymen would do the same for us. After all, it is the American way to move ourselves forward, even as some try to do it by keeping their neighbors down.