Who's Speaking Up For Ordinary Americans?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, you might remember that I took a short leave from the program about a month ago. I mentioned a little obliquely when I came back that I had had a death in my family. Now that I am a month into it, I can finally talk about the fact that it was my father who passed away. And it probably won't surprise you that I have been thinking about him a lot as I go about my day. I've also been thinking about the upcoming election.
It's not a matter of thinking about who my father would vote for. That's not hard to figure out. He was a native New Yorker with roots like most native-born African-Americans of his age in the segregated South. He was an Army veteran and later a cop who turned in his badge for a fire helmet, which became not just his career but also to a degree, his identity. Except that, unlike those fabulous firehouse chefs you always hear about, he never learned to cook - even his sandwiches were terrible. But that's another story.
No, I'm not thinking about who he would be for. I'm thinking about who would be for him. Now, many of my friends are of an age when we are losing our parents and we've been swapping stories. And when I shared some of the stories about my dad, a number of my friends were being nice and saying how remarkable he was - especially given his long career in various forms of public service.
And I have to say, actually, no, he wasn't. He was very ordinary, which was one of the things I came to appreciate about him. He could've been a little bit more ambitious and he could've been a little more self-aware. But what I liked about him is that he liked being him, for the most part.
He liked simple things like ham and potato salad for Easter dinner and going to the Fireman's Ball with my mother, and watching baseball on TV with his mother.
When I would call home from school and later my first job and having typical school or first job or boyfriend blues, I could count on one thing; he'd answer the phone, hear it was me and say, you made my day, just because I called him.
He did not spend all day thinking about how he would make his first million or be number one. He did not spend all day thinking about how he could cure cancer or end poverty. It might have been nice if he did those things, I guess, but he didn't.
What he did do was work a second job at the A & S Department Store during the Christmas season so he could help Santa out, hint-hint. What he did do was walk the dog in the driving rain with one of his cheap unlit cigars. What he did do was run to the hospital - still in uniform - when one of us kids had one of our frequent losing battles between our bikes and concrete. What he did do was keep bottled water and canned food in the house and his dress uniform pressed and cleaned to attend the all-too-frequent funerals, at least as I remember it, during the tumultuous days of the urban riots.
He was not perfect. And in fact, he had a couple of major issues, which I won't go into here. But I will say this: He tried to do his best, even when he was living in a time and place when his own country, because of bigotry and ignorance, among other things, did not always encourage his best.
My faith tells me that the measure of a people is how it treats the least among them. But my reading of history tells me that the measure of a great nation is whether it allows a path from ordinary to extraordinary. The best and brightest will in my view almost always find a way to rise, even in the most static and ossified places.
Sadly, every corner of the earth, even the richest, is home to someone desperate and broken. But a great nation allows a measure of dignity, peace and grace, even to those who don't want very much, who are willing to do their part as long as others do theirs.
So I'm thinking, now that my dad's not here to speak for himself, who is speaking for him?
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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