Thursday, June 23, 2011

Norman Rockwell wouldn't recognize America today . . .

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 Rockwell died, an unpublished writer named Tom Clancy labored at his typewriter to create a new American hero.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.


  1. Thanks, Anne and Daron. Good to see you here.

  2. I'm not sure Norman Rockwell would have recognized the Tea Party and its primary fuel of anger either. While I agree with many of the general ideals espoused by the Tea Party (less government, lower taxes) its zealous and recalcitrant rejection of pragmatism has done little to elevate the tone in our political discourse. Ultimately anger is ephemeral and movements born of such emotion need to mature. I don't see that happening in the Tea Party writ large.

  3. Adam, well posited. However attributing agreement or rejection of a concept to someone long deceased is a speculation at best. Everyone changes with time and circumstance. Who truly knows where Rockwell would come down today? As to anger, perhaps I would categorize Tea Party emotion as frustration. The anger seems to originate more from those who have had it their own way for decades and resent the vocal opposition. There is room for both in a democratic society.

  4. America is also a concept. My reply was more of a tongue in cheek response to the title of your post. Having now attended two Republican conventions in Utah overrun by self identified Tea Party supporters, the anger is on the surface of all their dialogue. I agree the democratic society leaves room for both, I just think the approach of many in the Tea Party is so rigidly dogmatic that they do not respect or consider alternative points of view. It is foolish to expect others to appreciate your position when you have no inclination to consider theirs and label them as "anti-constitution" etc. As I said, I think it lacks staying power because it is a movement fueled by rhetoric without much substance. Very Obama like in that regard.

  5. Adam, perhaps if there is any single unifying feature of any political party (or any organization in general) it would be that not all members agree with all principles espoused. That, IMO, is the essence of a democratic society. Toeing the "party line," "group think" at work, or any cluster of people who require their membership to adhere to every principle limits the growth of that organization. The possible exception to that premise is the adherence to religious principles where the "all or nothing" concept is often accepted. Of course there are enough varied religions where one can pick and choose among them until personal beliefs are satisfied. Great concepts you bring forth. Glad to have you posting.

  6. You're right. He wouldn't recognize and America in which blacks are not lynched, gays are not beat to death and jailed and woman have full access to employment. Guess which I'd prefer to live in and which I have no intention that the Tea Party steal.

  7. JR, these arguments are old and will never be resolved by either side. I have not proposed that America has reached perfection, nor, I presume, have you. However as I have lived around the world these past fifty years I have come to understand that the USA is far more noble then those who complain would like to admit. As you say, advancements have been made, progress has been beneficial to many groups, but in the process we have moved so far as to regulate which vegetables citizens can eat, where goldfish can be spawned and the federal government has . . . well, you know the rest of the story. Appreciate your POV. Drop around anytime.

  8. A tea party rally was recently held in S.C., one of the nation's most conservative states, where the tea party at one time was massive. Here's a picture from the recent "rally" with Governor Nikki Haley addressing the "crowd."

    Is this the brewing pot you were talking about?

  9. Candace: LOL Well done. I'll take your photo at face value, of course, although we all know what photoshop can do these days. Collectively speaking, however, the movement seems to have had impact nationally. No one agrees with ALL the positions of any particular political party and strength of movement rises and falls. Just ask the president. Thanks for your charming post and humorous photo. Cheers,

  10. So you're saying The State newspaper out of Columbia, S.C., photoshopped these pictures and lied about the dismal gathering?


    Everyone make sure to click on the additional photos and judge for yourself.


  11. Candace, I said no such thing, but I did say it was possible. You did not attribute the source in your original posting. No need to be offensive. Let's discuss, agree and disagree, but not resort to slamming. Tell me you've never seen a mocked up photo? I believe this one, and said so in my post. "Take your photo at face value . . ." For every poorly attended Tea Party rally, one could find just as many photos for large gatherings. Both sides play their games in this unresolvable conflict.

  12. Saying you take something at face value and then adding the bit about photoshop is telling. If the photo had depicted 25,000 people there, would you have said you take it at face value and included the photoshop line? Honestly.

    I don't think anyone was being offensive. I just find it typical that people cast doubt on information that doesn't support their position. It never fails.

    Sort of like the people in the tea party who denounce government-supported health coverage, but say nothing about abolishing V.A. hospitals, which is a pure example of government-run health care. Same goes for the elderly people who turned out at the town hall meeting to voice objection to government-supported health coverage, while having a Medicare card in their wallet or purse, and maybe even riding around on one of those "free" scooters paid for by Medicare. I never heard one of them say they were willing to give up their socialist health care.

    So, yeah, cherry-picking facts and information to support a predetermined position is nothing new.

    Good luck with your book.


  13. Candace, you're barking up the wrong tree when criticizing veteran health care. That is government funded AS PART OF THEIR SERVICE CONTRACT, not as a right because they free-loaded. I agree about cherry picking, by BOTH sides, when information is not supportive of one's particular POV. You seem to equate and confuse benefits that have been earned, (Social Security, Medicare, VA Health)with benefits that people demand simply because they live in America. Talk about cherry picking.

    No worries about my book. It will stand or fall on its merits, much as your argument.

  14. Gordon, the fact that vets receive government-run health care because it's in their contract does not change the fact that it's government-run health care. Nor does the idea of "earning" government-run health care make it any less socialistic.

    What makes something government-run (socialistic) is the way it's funded and administered. That's it. The fact that the recipients get the government-run health care in exchange for their work has nothing to do with the definition.

    The V.A. is funded by taxpayers and administered by the government.

    The V.A. is a socialistic health care system, by definition.

    The only problem I see with it is that it's probably not adequate enough.

  15. Candace, I think we are at a semantic variance. Government health care, (socialism concept) is the right of everyone to receive. In the instance we are discussing, VA health care is service given for service rendered. Significant difference, IMO, of course. I receive VA health care related to military service. I would not expect general government funded health care were that not the case. We see this differently, but that is what makes America great. We differ; we present opposing plans; we allow the people, (those who are not apathetic) to vote and decide. What better system exists in the world today?

  16. I don't see it as a semantic argument at all. The definition is what it is. I think what we have here is an unwillingness to admit that we all embrace socialism to varying degrees.

    Last thing I'll say on this, and then I'll leave and let you and your readers take it from there. I've had this same discussion with recipients of government-run health care (V.A. and Medicare) who claim to oppose socialistic health care, and their position can be summed up like this: "I'm against socialism, but don't take away MY socialism."

    Again, best of luck to you and thanks for your service.

  17. I do understand your concept of any such service being socialistic in nature, but disagree with your definition of those who benefit from it. From my perspective, it is not a question of "don't take away MY benefit," but more one of "don't take away my EARNED benefit and give it to someone who demands it for free, no service rendered."

    I do, however, appreciate your even-handed approach. We both seem unwilling to budge. Therein lies the great ship of state. 150 million people each replicating what we have just agreed to disagree upon.

  18. Tweeted Gordon's article forward as a comprehensible account of what the Tea Party wants, and the origins of its desires. Nice work showing us the wood made up out of horizon-obscuring trees, Gordon.

  19. Gordon,

    Well said - and thank you for your years of service to our country.

    I sent out your blog link to FB and Twitter.


  20. Whew! Well said! I salute you & thank you for your years of service to this great country, and for your effort to save it from itself.

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