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July 4, 2002

July 04, 2002

Legend has it that an early draft of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech to Congress after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor called Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in history." The president, with a keen ear for language, scratched out "history" and wrote in "infamy." He knew the symbolic power of one word--and one date.

Here we are today on the first July 4th after Sept. 11th, both days etched in history and memory for different reasons. So much has happened. We know that. And so little has changed. We need reminding there. We're at war, the president says, and it's bound to be a long one with more chapters than we imagine. The Taliban has been ousted and the tedious process of constructing Afghan democracy has begun. But, four months out from U.S. midterm elections, the camouflage of bipartisanship has evaporated in Washington politics and battle metaphors reign again.

The United States celebrates its 226th birthday today, wounded for sure, flustered perhaps, but still going strong as the world's brightest beacon of tolerance, liberty and opportunity. At least 19 terrorists came here to end their lives and commit homicidal mayhem against innocent civilians. But millions of people over the years have come here to begin new lives and build things.

Buildings go up and come down for one reason or, alas, another. But the idea of the United States has proven to be far stronger than any individual or physical structure. That's because the idea of freedom and democracy, as written and approved on that distant July 4th, taps into the wondrous human creativity and imagination of the myriad souls who've lived here, worked here and added their own dollop of personal effort and inspiration to this grand, imperfect experiment in democracy. It's a noisy, raucous place at times, even rude, crude and overbearing. But over two centuries, no other enduring nation has strove so consistently for openness and self-improvement.

We need to recall that amid the holiday hoopla. The hot dogs this year will taste pretty much the same. Some parades may be a tad longer. More spectators might stand respectfully when the flag passes or the national anthem plays. The fireworks tonight may make us think of more lethal explosions elsewhere. In sum, we're more aware today of what we've had all along.

One year ago in this same space, talking about appreciating the fragile democratic heritage launched by the founding fathers July 4, 1776, we wrote: " ... then one day what we thought we appreciated is somehow gone forever and the word 'appreciate' takes on a much deeper meaning. That's the feeling that ought to rise in our heads and hearts for a few minutes today." In the end, it seems the message from one Fourth of July to another is exactly the same. We're what's changed.

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