What shall we call this? We had the Square Deal for the Common Man (Teddy Roosevelt), and our grandparents welcomed the New Deal in the depths of the Great Depression (Franklin Roosevelt) and cheered the New Frontier of John Kennedy and the Best and the Brightest (of his generation). Lyndon Johnson brought us the Great Society (at least for a while) and Ronald Reagan brought us Morning in America. The outgoing George W. Bush promised Compassionate Conservatism.
Yesterday we watched the train carrying President-elect Barack Obama and VP-electJoe Biden and their families, friends, aides, supporters and security personnel as it traveled from Philadelphia through Wilmington and Baltimore to Washington’s Union Station. This was the train ride to glory. The event brought to mind certain train journeys of the past, such as President Harry Truman’swhistle-stop tours across the country to rally his flagging fortunes – and to be re elected by a whisker in 1948. Yesterday’s trip was deliberately cast in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln’s spring 1861 inaugural train ride.
Hope Rides the Rails
What great hopes ride along the rails this day with our incoming leaders – the economy is in the worst shape its been in for decades; the US Treasury is handing out billions in life support funds for once-mighty financial institutions and manufacturers; we are engaged in two wars in the Middle East, lasting longer than all of WW II for our country; 40 million of us have no medical insurance; 500,000 jobs disappeared just in December, and 2.5 million in all in 2008; there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of “a plan” today to reverse much of this – shall I stop here?
The election of November 2008 will be remembered as the start of a movement, or the culmination in the rising of a grassroots movement when Americans from all backgrounds decided on their own and collectively to try to right the course of the nation, to take back the power levers of government from leaders who they believed had largely failed in their responsibilities and accountability to the rest of us, and worked to try to restore a government of, by and for The People.
Sure, there were 48 percent or so of the voters who didn’t vote for Barack Obama, and many are still believe that he is under qualified and unprepared to be the nation’s chief executive officer and commander-in-chief. But the Voice of the People has been heard and the new administration is about to begin its work.
The capital city was ablaze in red, white and blue lights when the special train arrived, symbolically following part of the route of President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s journey to Washington a century-and-a-half earlier. (President-elect Lincoln’s trip took 12 days. President-elect Obama flew from Ohio to Philadelphia; his train trip was 7 hours.)
Tomorrow (Monday) the nation will celebrate the birthday of theReverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have been 80 years old. Cut down by an assassin when he was but 39, Dr. King is honored for his courageous work in advancing social and economic justice and civil rights for minorities. What would he been thinking today as the nation is about to witness a change of power from an old line traditional WASP family member (President George W. Bush) to Barack Obama, an American of mixed ancestry or middle class means — and who everyone is calling the first African-American to be elected President of the United States!
Great Rhetoric – Now Comes the Hard Work
Great phrases were sung out into the air along this ride by the incoming president – promising a government that will be accountableto the people! This a new beginning … Lifting our spirits up … Promises of a better day ahead … we all look forward to a better day! A new Day of Independence is here …we can perfect our Union in the process… We all hope so!
The well-known New York newspaper writer and columnist, Jimmy Breslin, started out as a daily sports writer and moved to feature writing, columnist, book author, and more. He regularly brought his readers Big Stories from a different perspective, that of a bystander whose Common Man nature often spoke for the rest of us – for We, the People (looking on at the big story).
As the train rolled on along the Atlantic seaboard, through the great historic cities, past small rural towns, through the stations of commuter towns, I thought about Jimmy Breslin’s approach. This was a big story, and there were also big stories there in the background, in plain sight.
When I ride the Amtrak lines back and forth between Washington and New York, I am always struck by stretches of abandoned factories alongside the tracks where American workers once proudly turned out goods that other Americans and people around the world then purchased and used. Literally mile-upon-mile there are vacant, boarded up cathedrals of industry that once provided jobs for local people, often located within walking distance of worker housing (city row housing, for example). Jobs that provided entry to the middle class and in a generation or two, beyond.
Where Are All the Workers?
Where did all the workers go? I wonder about that. What are their children and grandchildren doing now that the work has been outsourced and sent abroad? Their efforts made technologically obsolete? “Too expensive” to be done here? Are they the people we’ll put back to work? From the train you can see the outlines of once-proud neighborhoods of many US towns and cities. The empty factory complex, sprawling across acres of land. Huge parking lots. Rail spurs that brought raw materials in and finished goods out. (Plenty of weeds growing hereabouts.) Rows of worker housing nearby. Small shops abound, or did. Churches everywhere. Parks, playgrounds. America-the-Blighted now, with factories boarded up.
Too many abandoned houses are plainly in sight from the train en route to/from the capital cities of New York (money and media) and Washington (government and politics). What do foreign leaders and visitors think of us when they see this evidence of a throw-away society? (Including tossing out our human assets in business.) How many houses with families gone are the result of recent subprime loans and predatory lending practices? How many jobs were sent overseas because the Masters of Wizardry on Wall Street encouraged large publicly-owned corporations to abandon and send away their precious human assets? (Jobs cut = Wall Street cheers/Main Street jeers.)
Did You See What I See?
As our new president rolled along this route, which his VP knows very well from 36 years of daily commuting between Wilmington, Delaware and Washington’s Union Station just across from Capitol Hill, did he survey the scene as Jimmy Breslin might have…from the perspective of the Common Man who may be feeling abandoned by the elite forces that have changed his or her life and that of the family? Did he see all the abandoned homes? Factories? Neighborhoods in abject states of decay? Crumbling city infrastructure? Schools in bad condition?
We hope so. The revival of this great country will depend on putting millions of people back to work – productively. Earning good wages.Promises to keep, as VP-elect Joe Biden told his hometown crowd in Wilmington. There’s more: the schools of the cities and towns passed need help. Too many poor kids do not have access to a quality education as their more affluent suburban neighbors do (in better funded public schools and private schools). After so many advances, we are once again creating a permanent underclass – which has dangerous implications for all of us in the long run.
As the whistle blew and the inaugural train rolled on, observation car platform decked out in bunting of red-white-blue, as cheering crowds lined the route, as Obama and Biden cheerily waved back, as fellow passengers peered out of the windows…did they notice these remaining relics of abandoned dreams littering the railroad right-of-way? And I hope they remember those scenes as they grip the metaphoric levers of government power and literally have in their hands the ability to try to reverse the hollowing out of American industrial jobs of the recent decades, and take steps for the relief of the embattled poor and now-struggling middle class — and start the rebuilding and reinvestments of American cities and towns and rural communities. Good luck, guys! Good luck to all of us.
Great train ride, too. Please, President Obama and VP Biden — remember the joys of the trip as the capital items and operating budget allocations are discussed for what’s left of America’s great rail road systems. One sure answer to the energy crisis is the revival and rebuilding of the great rail network that once criss-crossed the whole of these United States.