Drawing hope from Jefferson

December 05, 2004|By Terry Edmonds

I RECENTLY visited what is perhaps the last clear-thinking Democrat in Washington.

As I hustled up the white, sloping steps of the Jefferson Memorial that cool, blustery evening, I kept wondering if what we Democrats needed most was to simply revisit the cornerstone of what it means to be a Democrat in our modern democracy. I was not completely sure what that should look like after two straight demoralizing defeats, but I was sure it had less to do with playing swing-vote politics and more to do with being clear about our core values.

Jefferson was certainly sure about his. And so was Karl Rove.

Jefferson's values encompass the ages: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

As a proud African-American who worked his way up from a childhood of poverty, I certainly know what those words mean to poor people and many people of color who are still considered "special interests" or "second-class" citizens by too many who should know better. My great-great-grandparents tilled the soil and built the bridges to the strong and vibrant America we know today. And a new generation, in new ways, is taking their place. African-Americans are as much special interests as the descendents of Jefferson - and we won't even talk about Sally Hemmings here.

So, the first bolt of clarity that hit me as I twisted my neck to decipher the Romanesque inscriptions circling the Jefferson dome was that Democrats ought to stop being timid about being the party of those who for too long have been left out - and, yes, that means women and people of color and gay people and the poor.

As Sen. John Kerry and Bruce Springsteen reminded us during the presidential campaign, when it comes to who and what we stand for, there can be "no retreat, no surrender."

Mr. Kerry was right when he boldly stated that when the attack boats are charging straight at you is when you swing your boat head-on into the fight. Democrats are the party of one America, and we should never run from that. I am not so sure the gaggle of swing-vote consultants and pollsters who run modern elections like least-common-denominator advertising campaigns would agree.

The second bolt of clarity that hit me while facing the gusts of the Tidal Basin on my way back down the memorial steps is that to be a Jeffersonian Democrat means believing in a democracy that is alive and ever-changing, not frozen in some strict constructionist lock-box.

Jefferson's words should be inscribed in our hearts: "We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

Amen to that. Without such a commitment to change, there would never have been an end to slavery or Jim Crow or prohibitions against the female vote or a woman's right to choose. And without a commitment to change in the future, there will be, at worst, the loss of some of those hard-fought gains, or, at best, no further significant expansion of equal opportunity. And there will be no embryonic stem cell research or other life-saving medical breakthroughs.

Finally, as I drove away with the Jefferson Memorial's lights fading into the distance, I remembered one more quote sent around to the erstwhile Kerry speechwriting team by our crack researcher, Adam Frankel:

"A little patience and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt. ... If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake."

Thank you, Mr. Frankel. Thank you, Mr. Jefferson. I feel much better now.

Terry Edmonds, a Baltimore native, was chief speechwriter for the Kerry campaign and the first black speechwriter for a U.S. president, serving as chief speechwriter for Bill Clinton from 1999 to 2001.

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