We needed this past week, with its moments of introspection, its
reflections on national purpose, its symbols of national concord.
Many of them, of course, occurred in Boston, site of terrorism in
2013. One of them occurred in Dallas, site of tragedy in 1963.
The images of what happened in Boston already have been seared
into the national psyche. The image of what happened in Dallas
Thursday is fresher, and while ceremonial rather than spontaneous,
it was a powerful statement about the noblest American values. Duty.
Service. Reconciliation. Unity.
It was there, in Dallas, that five presidents -- all the living
chief executives -- gathered to dedicate the George W. Bush
Presidential Library and Museum. There is a liturgy to moments like
this, carefully intertwined skeins of expressions and omissions:
artfully crafted, sometimes stilted, speeches about the burden of
office; exhortations of good will; eloquent things said and
difficult things unsaid. "I like President Bush," Bill Clinton said
that morning, and the remark carried the weight of the generous and
That was all there, on the campus of Southern Methodist
University, on a shiny afternoon when Barack Obama, who for years
after his inauguration still pilloried the younger Mr. Bush, stood
in presidential solidarity with his foil; when the man being honored
warmly greeted Mr. Clinton, his remarks about how his predecessor
had dishonored the White House long forgotten; when Mr. Clinton, who
ran a tough race against the older Mr. Bush, stood beside the
wheelchair carrying his 1992 rival, his body language displaying
devotion, perhaps even love; and when Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who
cringe every time their names are in the same sentence with Jimmy
Carter, nonetheless welcomed the 39th president as one of their own.
Because there, in one stunning Texas tableau, stood most of
American history since 1977.
Missing, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who had a gift for
conciliation and, despite his age in the White House, a vision
sharper than any of those in attendance. In a way he was there as
well. You could almost see the smile, which was genuine, and hear
the stage laugh, which was not, and the love of country, which all
of these men -- even the ones, like Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who
raged against it when young -- came to embrace in the office that
Reagan once held.
What we saw there, too, was a portrait of a land locked in
economic crisis, wracked with social divisions, jolted by terrorism
at a beloved regional ritual and saddened by the knowledge that its
most precious conviction (social mobility and the sturdy belief that
the children will surpass their parents) is in grave danger of
becoming a myth.
Because these five men, makers of history but responders to
history as well, represent so much of our national character.
Mr. Obama will never cease being a national symbol, even if his
domestic initiatives are forgotten, if his health-care initiative
fails and if his legacy, like those of presidents between 1865 and
1893, are lost in a mist of memory. He still will be remembered as a
pathfinder -- and a symbol of what a nation that yearns to leave its
greatest wrong behind can do when the time comes, in the autumn
every four years, to look forward and exercise its greatest right. …