It was a sunny day in 1992, in downtown Plock, Poland, when she took our breath away.
My husband Ron and I were enjoying a brief time without Sister City delegation duties, and without an interpreter. Just walking along, poking into shops on our own before the next round of official functions.
Suddenly a woman rushed up to us, speaking with purposeful care to ask it correctly in English: “Are you Americans?” Her bright eyes darted back and forth between us with hopeful anticipation.
We stood there for a moment, wondering, as Americans do, how it could be so obvious that we were American and why that mattered so much to her. “Yes,” we answered.
“Thank you for my freedom.”
She was off before we could breathe again. We stood silent on the sidewalk, letting the enormity of her words sink in.
When I recall this, I think about the speeches that Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan gave at the Berlin Wall.
President Kennedy spoke in 1963 in support of the citizens of West Berlin, who lived surrounded by communist East Germany.
In 1987, President Reagan stood at the wall, citing the ideals of democracy as he called on Russia's president to give East Germany the same opportunity, politely but firmly demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Both men strategically wove their words around the realities of the powers at the time, while keeping the threads firmly knotted on the principles of American freedom and democracy.
Statesmanship is not simply stating things well. Statesmanship is the quality of understanding and respecting the powers, cultures, histories and current strategies at play and deftly leading through them to a result that makes a better world.
I miss statesmanship.
Every July 4, I spend some time in the pages of “The American Patriot's Handbook” by George Grant, a gem of a collection of some of the most significant speeches, poems, laws and other writings of our history. Here are some glimpses that inspire me to be a better American patriot.
“...we must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each another, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” – John Winthrop, 1630
“The foundation stone of national life is, and ever must be, the high individual character of the average citizen.” – President Theodore Roosevelt, 1906
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of bad people, but for the appalling silence of good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963
“I am convinced that the majority of American people do understand that we have a moral responsibility to foster the concepts of opportunity, free enterprise, the rule of law and democracy. They understand that these values are the hope of the world.” – Sen. Richard Lugar
That last quote isn't in the book, but Sen. Lugar is an exemplar of great American statesmen.
He taught me that all Americans have a tremendous responsibility to lift others up, in our own communities and around the world, out of gratitude.
Today, unabashed gratitude for America is not in style. In the opinion of many, our nation's sins outweigh its virtues, that honoring our flag in gratitude for our freedom is hypocritical.
I long to be stirred by statesmanship that inspires us – all of the diverse us – to unite around affirmation of the goodness of America and salute it, and our flag, together.
Since statesmen/women are human beings, they are not perfect. They bring their own baggage of upbringing, understanding, prejudice, pain and privilege. They make mistakes.
Nevertheless, the great statesmen of America's history raised up a vision for the ideal, challenging Americans to live into it. Let's hear more of that today.
Linda Buskirk, a Fort Wayne resident, is a strategic facilitator, author and tour guide.