I was recently invited by a local federal judge, the Honorable Gene Pratter, to speak at a naturalization ceremony. I have done a great deal of public speaking in my life, but never before new American citizens. There I stood before fifty-four individuals, from twenty-seven different nations, who were taking an oath and joining our ranks in an ornate room paneled with California redwood.
I had given a great deal of thought as to what I should say, and even solicited the advice of some radio listeners. They, of course, had plenty of thoughts.
Many wanted me to tell them how fortunate they were to be American citizens. One wanted me to thank them for playing by the rules in the face of the illegal immigration problem. Another told me to encourage them to vote, and even invited me to brag about my personal streak of twenty-six straight years without missing an election.
A close friend suggested I tell my own family's immigration story - which involves my now 100 year old grandmother who came to Ellis Island with an infant in her arms in 1926. Perhaps the most innovative suggestion was that I greet them with Borat's favorite word, "Jagshemash!", and then welcome them to the U, S and A.
I used all of those suggestions, although the Borat line fell a little flat. But with an eye on Thanksgiving, I had a different message in mind.
I told them that as a boy growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I shared the dream of many other children in the United States. I wanted what I then believed to be the all-American job. And what was that? Well, to pitch for the Philadelphia Phillies, of course. Or any other major league baseball team.
Unfortunately, at age 44, I am starting to think that maybe pitching for the Phillies is not in the cards. No matter. As things turned out, I've ended up with the all-American job, and it has nothing to do with athletics.
I am a talk show host. And not only do I offer my opinions on the radio, I get to do so on television and in print, too. I am the modern equivalent of those who two hundred plus years ago would have stood on a soap box in this same city to make their views known. What makes mine the all-American job, I told them, is my ability to speak my mind on matters of public concern without fear of recrimination. Too often we Americans take that ability for granted.
I reminded the new citizens that this is a right guaranteed to us in the First Amendment to our Constitution - and I told them that I have always drawn significance from it being the First Amendment, which states that:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
That's what gave me the ability to be on the radio the same morning as my remarks taking issue with the efforts of a local institution that wishes to sell a historically significant painting and permit it to leave our city. It is the underpinning of my complaints in a recent last newspaper column wherein I criticized my own political party. It is the protection that enabled me to speak on national television this week, and complain about our government's foreign policy.
I reminded them that there are many passionate arguments being held in the United States right now about the war in Iraq. I am the host of many of them on a daily basis. But that is where the debate is held - in the open, via the airwaves, and amongst all who choose to participate. And our deliberative process does not involve guns or knives, our representation is not dependent on a blood line, nor who has the most feared army. We settle our scores when the curtain is drawn in a ballot box. Democracy is our means of settling scores.
Think about that, I told them, and you will realize why I say that the all-American job is my own - I offer opinions and try to win wars of ideas. And although I get paid to offer my views, I told the new citizens that they are now entitled to the same rights of expression as I, and I hope they will not sit silently.
Then I closed by offering them one such opinion. I told them that despite our differences, our problems, and political issues of contention, we Americans are citizens of the greatest country ever created, at its most advanced stage of development.
At Thanksgiving, it's a message for citizens both new and old.