My father has been on my mind a lot lately. He was part of the Greatest Generation, and deserves every bit of credit for what he and those of his era accomplished.
But I’ve also started wondering: Could we be on the brink of a new greatest generation? We are at a crossroads in America. What President Obama called a “make-or-break” time for the middle class.
In his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, on December 6, the President spoke about the dream of America, which has always been that people who work hard and play by the rules can achieve anything they set their minds to. My father, Alvie L. Smith, embodied that vision. He went from selling boiled peanuts on street corners in Savannah as a boy to leading the global communications program for General Motors. In between, he worked hard and studied hard and applied every ounce of his energy to making something of himself — both as a source of pride and to take care of his family.
This is what President Obama wants to see our country be again. A place where every man and woman has the opportunity to achieve greatness if they work hard. A country where everyone does their fair share, gets a fair shake and plays fair. Where even an orphan left to fend for himself and his three brothers on the streets of Savannah can grow up to become a leader in his field, like my father did. (A world-class speechwriter, I’m pretty sure my father’s response to the President’s remarks in Kansas would have been: “That was a helluva speech.”)
Sure, my father had some help here and there, but not much. He went to college on the GI Bill and scholarships, including one provided by (I kid you not) a childless tugboat captain and his wife who wanted to help a deserving young person. Most everything else my dad achieved he did through hard work and loyalty, and with great integrity.
My father was also on my mind as we observed the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He fought in World War II, and was a member of one of the only 30 percent of B-17 crews that actually returned from that war.
There’s a reason men and women like my father have been called the Greatest Generation. They grew up in the Depression (my mother had equally humble beginnings) and did what they had to do to survive. They believed in hard work and honesty, in being neighborly and helping those in need. They had faith in the American Dream and what it promised: the chance of a better life
I honestly think our country could be poised to create a new greatest generation, or at least a great one. There’s an opportunity to restore the principles that made our country great in the first place, a chance to reassess our collective values and remember that we have more in common than not. Americans have the chance to see our country become better than ever, by emerging from the dark times we’ve faced in recent years.
But some things will have to change. Right now, about one-third of children born in poverty will never rise to the level of the middle class. They don’t have a chance. They need to have that chance. I’m not talking about hand-outs. I’m talking about programs like the GI Bill or short-term assistance that can give people the boost they need to stand on their own. Affordable healthcare so people like a tugboat captain — who I imagine doesn’t make a lot of money — can still have something to share with a poor young man with big dreams.
Making sure everyone has enough means greater equality, greater cooperation and a greater sense of our country as a community that works together instead of against each other. A country where everyone does their fair share and everyone gets a fair shot. And, maybe most important of all, where everyone plays fair.
It was a vision that worked for our country during the time of the Greatest Generation and at many other times in our history. It’s a vision that can work for our future.