American Exceptionalism . . . without Exception

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

American Exceptionalism . . . without Exception


Byline: Monica Crowley, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

One day in 1984, at the height of his fame, Michael Jackson made a visit to the White House. President and Nancy Reagan may not have dug his music, but they understood the power Mr. Jackson commanded as a common pop-cultural touchstone for just about everyone else. Mr. Jackson had given the White House permission to use his smash hit Beat It in a campaign to halt teen drinking and driving, and the Reagans wanted to bestow on him a public-safety award and their personal thanks.

The now-iconic photograph of their visit reveals much about the towering personalities and even more about America. Mr. Jackson stands between the Reagans, wearing a tamer version of his famous sequined faux-military costume. Hands clasped in front of him, he waits silently as the president finishes making a point to Mrs. Reagan. He gazes up at the president, his eyes as wide as saucers. His awe is palpable. The world's greatest performer has discovered himself on a stage even bigger and more profound than the ones he is used to occupying.

The boy from Tampico, Ill., standing with the boy from Gary, Ind.: two children of the Midwest who went on to become among the most influential people the world has ever known. Their stories, although distinct, share one thing in common: They are quintessentially American.

During his public life, Barack Obama has often referred to his biracial background and itinerant childhood and has said, In no other country on Earth is my story even possible. True.

But earlier this year, while attending the European summit of the Group of 20 major economic countries, the president was asked if he believed in American exceptionalism. He replied, I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism, and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

Not exactly the way Mr. Reagan would have answered.

American exceptionalism is grounded in the founding of the United States upon an idea, rather than upon the ambitions of men. Indeed, it was designed to be a nation of laws and specifically not of men, built on the concept of individual liberty and equal justice before the law, with freedoms ranging from speech to worship, and rights from gun ownership to assembly.

The Founding Fathers institutionalized these freedoms so we would be safe from the overweening burdens and capricious claims of a too-powerful state. These freedoms would allow individuals to do as they pleased within the confines of the law and to achieve, in ways big and small, to the benefit of the country as a whole.

Even in extremely difficult times, American exceptionalism survived. …

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