Shining City on the Hill?

Yesterday, I was sitting on an American Airlines flight reflecting on my trip to our Nation’s Capitol. I was there to learn more about changes in federal laws impacting education, to network with other school board members from across the country and to advocate our members of Congress.

I had lived in D.C. twice previously, both times assigned there by the U.S. Air Force. This time though, I looked through a brand new lens. During my 22-year military career, I (appropriately) saw myself as a servant of the people. When I stood outside the White House grounds viewing the world’s most powerful leader’s residence, I felt a different call to duty. At that moment, I was reminded of our responsibility to ensure the right person sits in the Oval Office and is held accountable by each of us. Too much is at stake – from representing us to the rest of the world to controlling the launch of nuclear weapons. Not only do we have the right to vote, but a sacred duty to do so. Not primarily in our own interests, or to further our own ideology, but to ensure a more perfect union, a safer world, and a lasting legacy for all of our children.

To me, our visits to Capitol Hill highlighted the representative nature of our form of governance. At any given office we visited, there were often three groups in queue to advocate or lobby for their cause or industry. Sometimes those meetings were with the actual gracious lawmaker (as with Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick), but other times, we were relegated to a young staffer (as with Congressman Paul Gosar.) Either way, we and many others funneled through to influence and seek favors. But, since there will never be enough resources to accommodate all requests (many from opposite ends of the spectrum), winners and losers are assured and conflict is the natural by-product.

There were too, those visiting their nation’s Capitol to see democracy in action. Many of them school children with bar coded tour labels stuck to the front of their matching school logoed t-shirts. There was a man with a bullhorn whose message I didn’t quite get, but he was intent on exercising his first amendment rights even if no one cared to listen. I also noticed the youth that defines so many of those who live and work in the city. It occurred to me that although the average age of those in the U.S. Senate is 61 years old, the daily grind of running our country is in the hands of those with enough energy to meet the challenge.

So, what’s my takeaway? Am I more or less hopeful for the future? Guess I have to say I’m still somewhere in between. Spending time with fellow school board members – “volunteer” elected officials from around the country who had made the trip to D.C. to fight for their students – made be optimistic. Hearing their stories of the on-going war against public education in their states highlighted the hard fight still ahead. The countless young people everywhere I looked, made me optimistic. But, so were there signs everywhere that the world is becoming more dangerous by the minute with bollards, fences, metal detectors and armed law enforcement officers around every corner. Going to see the Senate in session, only to find them departed by the time I worked my way through all the security checkpoints, reminded me of a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

The one thing I know for sure after my visit is that our democracy is sacred and must be safeguarded. President-Elect John F. Kennedy quoted John Winthrop in 1961 when he said: “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill – the eyes of all people are upon us.” I don’t think it is too extreme a stretch to say this year’s presidential election could decide whether that shine returns to its original luster, or is forever tarnished. It really is up to each of us, let’s hope we are up to the challenge.


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