Editor’s note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) — Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has generated a firestorm by asserting, at a fundraiser for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, “I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America.”
Of course, that’s nuts. Barack Obama’s deep and true love for our country has been a hallmark of his career. “In no other country on Earth,” he said when he was seeking the presidency, “is my story even possible.” Obama said this, it should be noted, in his masterly speech on race — an issue that is America’s most difficult and tortured. If you can proudly assert your love of country in a speech addressing the legacy of what he called, “America’s original sin” — slavery — you really love this country.
But it got me to thinking: How do you show love of country?
Sure, you fly the flag in front of your house — as Obama does. Perhaps you wear a flag pin on your lapel — as Obama does. But love of country demands more than mere flag-waving. Let me suggest the top 10 ways all of us can show we love America:
10. Support a strong central government. The Articles of Confederation were a disaster. The U.S. Constitution was designed by men who wanted a strong central government so as to build unity, strengthen the economy and defend the homeland.
9. Be skeptical of too much centralized governmental power. Inconsistent? Well, that tension is at the heart of the American experience. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton wanted national strength; Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not. To truly love America is to hold both ideas in your head at once.
8. Embrace immigrants. The best day I had in 2014 was the day my eighth-grader was chosen to speak to hundreds of new Americans at their naturalization ceremony. The energy, idealism and unadulterated patriotism in that room was overwhelming. True love of country was in the air; and tears were in my eyes.
7. Connect with a soldier or a veteran. Slapping on a bumper sticker that says “Support Our Troops” is fine. But the truth is, less than 1% of all Americans serve in uniform, protecting the other 99% of us. We civilians are far too separated from our military. I say this as one who never served, but whose father, stepfather and father-in-law all served in the Army; whose cousins have served, and who has friends on active duty today.
As a professor at Georgetown I have taught many outstanding young officers over the past 14 years. I have kept in touch with many: some are still in uniform — they give me firsthand reports of the glory and the errors of today’s military. Others are in civilian life: they connect me to the ground-level challenges young veterans face, from the job market to navigating the VA. If you really love your country, the least you can do is be able to name someone who is sacrificing for your freedom.
6. Take off the rose-colored glasses. One reason Barack Obama’s race speech was so remarkable is that he did not sugarcoat the evils of racism, nor has he allowed it to poison his view of the greatness of America. When you know the history of slavery, KKK terrorism and segregation, it helps you appreciate how far we have come. Real love, mature and deep, only comes from intimate knowledge. Ignorant, blind adoration is best left to teeny-boppers at a Justin Bieber concert, not true patriots. The goal is not “My Country, Right or Wrong,” but rather “Love Your Country: Right its Wrongs.”
5. Travel around America. I have been in all 50 states. I had the privilege of visiting most of them with Bill Clinton. If you ever get the chance to fly a million miles with President Clinton, I highly recommend it. Everywhere we went, we soaked up the local culture (and both of us inhaled the local cuisine). The lengthy, grueling presidential campaign gives our candidates a marrow-deep love for the wonderful diversity, the impossible breadth, and the miraculous unity of this country.
4. Then travel the world. The cliche is true: The more you see of the world, the more you love America. Maybe one reason the Greatest Generation had such deep love for America is that they’d served their country overseas and seen the rest of the world at its worst. At the same time, when you see other countries that are doing something better than we are; when you ride a highway in a Third World country that is smoother than your local interstate; when you see a successful European pre-K program, it makes you want to work on improve on those things at home.
3. Listen to someone you disagree with. Man, am I bad at this. But I try. I actually listen to Rush Limbaugh with some frequency. Sometimes I want to throw something at the dashboard, but other times I gain a perspective I lack. Besides, nothing is more American than a heartfelt political debate; and nothing is more boring than a vigorous agreement.
2. Inform yourself. Yes, the media is rife with faults, but we live in a time when technology empowers us to inform ourselves as never before. So, for example, before I jumped ugly over Sarah Palin’s recent speech in Iowa, I got on my computer and actually watched the whole thing. Perhaps before they screamed about President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, my conservative friends should have actually read it. If you truly love your country, get out of your media comfort zone (see #3 above), check out original sources, look up some history. Arm yourself with facts if you want to really love your country.
1. Question your leaders in time of war. The greatest, most disastrous, most tragic governmental decision made in my lifetime was the Iraq War. Too many Americans, broken-hearted and justly vengeful after 9/11, meekly swallowed the Bush administration’s line that Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat. Same thing with FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942. When your country is freaking out, when war fever is at its height, that is when questioning your leaders is the deepest display of patriotic love.