The surrender to corporate greed and Wall Street excess that is the legacy of the Bush-Cheney interregnum left Americans in a difficult spot this Thanksgiving.
To a greater extent than at any moment since the days of the Great Depression, our Holiday celebrations are colored by uncertainty, even fear, about an economy that shows every sign of having been badly broken by the wrecking crew from Texas and the scavengers of Wall Street.
Bush offers little solace. His Thanksgiving Proclamation for 2008 makes no reference to the hard times that have befallen the land under his watch.
Contrast Bush’s vagaries with the words of another president, Franklin Roosevelt, in those distant Depression days.
Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamations, poetic in character, epic in scope, addressed an anguished people – offering recognition of their difficulties, understanding of their fears and, above all, hope for the better day that might be forged through common cause.
Fully recognizing the power of his bully pulpit, the 32rd president went to the heart of the matter 75 years ago, in his first Thanksgiving Proclamation:
May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors.
May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.
This was a president seeking not to deny or avoid economic turbulance, but to help Americans respond to it as a united citizenry rather than isolated individuals.
It was a theme Roosevelt would return to annually as the 1930s progressed.
“During the past year we have been given courage and fortitude to meet the problems which have confronted us in our national life. Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality,” he wrote in 1934, as the New Deal progressed. “More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.’ With gratitude in our hearts for what has already been achieved, may we, with the help of God, dedicate ourselves anew to work for the betterment of mankind.”
In 1935, as the threat of European fascism developed, Roosevelt would observe in his proclamation:
In traversing a period of national stress our country has been knit together in a closer fellowship of mutual interest and common purpose. We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself. We can be grateful that peace at home is strengthened by our growing willingness to common counsel. We can be grateful that our peace with other nations continues through recognition of our peaceful purpose.
But in our appreciation of the blessings that Divine Providence has bestowed upon us in America, we shall not rejoice as the Pharisee rejoiced. War and strife still live in the world. Rather, must America by example and in practice help to bind the wounds of others, strive against disorder and aggression, encourage the lessening of distrust among peoples and advance peaceful trade and friendship.
The future of many generations of mankind will be greatly guided by our acts in these present years. We hew a new trail.
That new trail led America to its better self, and ultimately to a renewed sense of economic security.
Seventy years ago this fall, the president offered a measure of the progress to which we might yet aspire:
Our lands have yielded a goodly harvest, and the toiler in shop and mill receives a more just return for his labor.
We have cherished and preserved our democracy.
Such were the linkages Franklin Roosevelt made, as he shaped a new understanding of what it meant to be an American – an understanding that would unite and strengthen citizens in tough times.
Let us hope on this Thanksgiving Day that our next president really will give us a new New Deal – and with it a measure of the insight and inspiration that the best of his predecessors bestowed upon this battered republic.