Thursday, June 23, 2011
I was born in the year Norman Rockwell painted The Four Freedoms. Those images adorned my childhood bedroom, or I should say “bedrooms” as my parents moved often in those post-war years. A half century has passed and Rockwell wouldn’t recognize America today.
Rockwell’s Freedom of Speech is perhaps most well known. Depicting a disheveled man, obviously tired after a long day at work, he stands to speak before a poorly attended Town Hall meeting. The image spoke volumes to me about the American right to be heard.
Today, Rockwell might need to paint the image of several adults and a half dozen small children standing on a street corner, waving hand-painted signs which read ,”God Hates Soldiers.” In the foreground parents follow closely behind their son’s hearse, the young man’s Purple Heart pinned to his mother’s breast.
Rockwell also depicted Freedom of Worship with a family seated quietly in a pew, the grandmother’s hands joined in an attitude of prayer. Today, in our ‘One Nation Under God,’ the only place public prayer is allowed, ironically, is in the United States Congress. If he could conjure up humor at the loss of this basic God-given right, Rockwell might paint a Supreme Court Justice lifting his judicial robes as he scurries across the street, intent on slapping the wrist of the Speaker of the House for his outrageous behavior in a public facility.
For half a century Rockwell created images that touched hearts and moistened eyes. They formed my earliest concept of a just, confident, and benevolent America, a nation of people that honored Boy Scouts, soldiers, teachers, doctors, fire fighters, police officers, and pastors—people who served humanity—as noble. I owe a great deal to Mr. Rockwell for my visual imagery of this great nation.
But I repeat; Norman Rockwell would not recognize America today.
Shortly after Mr. Rockwell died, an unpublished writer named Tom Clancy labored at his typewriter to create a new American hero. Jack Ryan chased the Red October through the North Atlantic to protect us from our national fear of a Soviet nuclear threat. Ronald Reagan called it “a great yarn” and a legendary character was born.
As Clancy’s adventurous novels enthralled his readers he showed us that good men need not finish last. Competing against the literary mold of a rapscallion and promiscuous James Bond, Jack Ryan was a standard bearer for honor. He was a family man, faithful yet stubborn, respectful but obstinate, and willing to literally stand on the wall to protect us. He was serious about his oath to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We groaned when Ryan found too many of the latter, but we knew it was true.
As Jack rose from intelligence analyst to POTUS, we marveled at the Clancy/Ryan grasp of basic American values, astonished to find them resident in a living, albeit fictional character. Jack Ryan became an idealistic Rockwell portrait of Americana.
After 9/11, I recall watching the media interview dozens of experts on terrorism. Seeking a thirty-second sound bite, I heard them ask Clancy, “who’s at fault and why has the intelligence community failed us?” When he answered that the media bore significant responsibility since they had consistently berated and second guessed our field operatives for what they termed reprehensible tactics, the reporter blanched. When the network returned to air after a commercial break, they did not challenge Mr. Clancy again. Jack Ryan had shoved a mirror in their face and the reflection of Dorian Gray was not pretty.
Several years ago, thousands, no millions of Americans left the porch and took up the cause. As the Tea Party grew exponentially, much of our nation took heart. Heirs to Paul Revere’s ride, John and Mary Doe by the thousands gathered in the town square to present a real life Norman Rockwell painting.
They collectively delivered their message to Washington D.C. and state capitols. “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,” they bellowed. In buses, caravans, RV’s, bicycles, and on foot they traveled to rallies, state legislatures, and school board meetings, striking fear into the heart of elected leaders who were historically familiar with—and dependent upon—public apathy.
The Speaker of the House called them Astroturf, mocking their grass roots movement. But the Spirit of the Founding Fathers watered the grass and the Tea Party grew. I watched it happen of all places, on Fox News, my smile broadening and my heart beating faster. America was coming home.
As the son of a World War II veteran who lies beneath a marble headstone in a quiet corner of Fort Sam Houston, I knew at a young age that it was my turn to stand on the wall. I became a Recon Marine then I spent ten years in the Air Force. Military service was followed by a quarter century as a city manager and public administrator before I tried my hand at writing. Over those years, often living in foreign lands, I learned my most important lesson: America is a beacon, warning of a rocky shoal, while our political leaders pretend that solar panels or ethanol, not patriots, can power that indivisible light.
I never met Norman Rockwell but have occasionally corresponded with Tom Clancy. Their contributions along with those of the burgeoning Tea Party have inspired millions as we come face-to-face with the “fundamental change” that modern-day politicians seek to impose on America, creating a dependency and a sure vote. The Tea Party members understand that fundamental change is not necessary in America. Fundamental change is necessary in us.
As a novelist I created Pug Connor, who, like Jack Ryan, learned to fight terrorism, often within the boundaries of the Washington Beltway or in the very corridors of Congress. I’ve often wondered what Norman Rockwell would paint were he alive today. I know one thing is certain: he would not recognize America. I will continue to write novels that depict the America I love, believing that Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms remain a part of our heritage. Pug Connor will continue to stand his watch on the wall.
But beware: the national tea pot is brewing and when you look across the nation at the homes that make up the heartland you will see there is an empty chair slowly rocking on the porch. Its owner is in the town square, checking to see if there is one lantern or two.