This Train: Barack Obama and the Revival of American Patriotism

05/25/2011 01:00 pm ET

Certain kinds of bad political behavior are passed from parents to children. My mom told me bitter stories from her girlhood of run-ins with Republican kids, the worst being when FDR died. Neighborhood kids taunted the Democratic families' houses with chants of "The cripple is dead."

Of course, in her telling me these stories, my own outlook was being hardened: Republicans are thugs and bullies. And now that I have kids I have a choice about passing this view down to them, or finding a way to pull back from it. It hasn't helped that for decade after decade, republicans have often played politics mean and dirty; conservatives' claims notwithstanding, no serious, well-funded analog exists on the left for such hate-mongers as Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh. No, even at their most extreme, Keith Olbermann and Al Franken do not come close. And even the most hardball-playing Democratic political operatives -- the Carviles of the world -- pulled up way shy of the nasty slash-and-burn of Karl Rove.

Still, I want my kids to have a chance at being bigger than all this. Somebody has to break the cycle. As in the Middle East, the barely submerged hatred that liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans have been passing down for each other, generation to generation, are similarly fed on a growing body of stories that are at once historic, political -- and personal (like my Mom's). It may not be anything close to the Arabs and the Jews, but this mutual hatred is nonetheless a homegrown American noxious weed, a toxin that can kill kindness, cloud clear thinking, and poison the body politic.

As the saying goes in school rooms across America: "I don't care who started it, I want to know who's gonna stop it."

Barack Obama seems hellbent to be the one to stop it. In the kind of symbolic move that is designed to unite and inspire Americans, Barack and Michelle Obama and Joe and Jill Biden rolled through the Northeast Corridor yesterday, waving at citizens and making speeches, smiling and shaking hands, and generally sending a message of positivity and hope. The feeling one got, and that Obama worked hard rhetorically to convey along the way, was this: we're all riding this train. We're all rolling into DC together on one mighty American engine. And we all have work to do, together, to perfect our troubled union.

Clearly, Obama has been saying for years now, one of the most important ways to perfect our union is to stop bullying each other. We will let it go unsaid that there has been one bully and one bullied, for the most part, for the past 30 years -- even when Democrats had the White House (Grand Inquisitor Starr, anyone?). False equivalency is the price we may have to pay. No matter. The dynamics of the schoolyard are instructive, since politics really is the schoolyard writ large. In the schoolyard, it is usually up to the bullied party to disarm the bully -- either through a return of superior brute force (which would have been the HRC model) or through an example of moral suasion so powerful that the community turns and shames the bully into behaving (the emerging Obama model, and one with roots in the Civil Rights Movement).

The biggest way the right has treated everyone else like dirt for lo these many years is to question their patriotism, and doesn't it get exhausting being lectured by these people. Team Bush worked with a deck of cards that consisted of 52 Patriots of Clubs. Coulter and Savage frame liberalism as akin to treason at every opportunity -- cha-ching! Sarah Palin played that card when she spoke of the "real America" that loves its country, as opposed to the rest of us. Michelle Malkin and Coulter, among many others, have had a field day with the decontextualized Michelle Obama comment about being proud of her country. I feel like my patriotism -- and my very definition of that commodity -- has been on perpetual court-marshall for decades.

But you know, there's something about a train whistle to drown out all that noise. And a crisis. And a calm manner. And an outstretched hand, even for the George Wills and Wiliam Kristols and Rick Warrens and the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the world. Something about the way Barack Obama has not even had to utter the utterly false Bush mantra of 2000 -- "I'm a uniter, not a divider." He walks the walk without talking too loud or wearing a big cowboy hat.

So we all get to ride this train, if we want to. And, to return to the question of what kind of America my daughter and my son get to grow up in, their formative years will be the Obama years, and I'm looking for eight of them. And if Daddy can bite his tongue, the cycle of nastiness in our family might just end with my Allie and Miles.

My fervent hope is that my kids can come of age considering themselves part of a patriotic family -- one that protested the Iraq War before it began, with 4-month-old Allie in tow. One that worked for Kerry, worked for Obama. One that counts as a grandfather a blacklisted writer and one where Mom worked for Michael Moore both Mom and Dad have worked for Democracy Now! and where Dad blogs for the Huffington Post. We wake up today and miraculously find that no one with any power can make questions of our brand of patriotism stick anymore.

Come Wednesday, I have no doubt, it'll be business as usual with the Limbaughs and the Coulters, the Savages and the Hannitys inveighing in full-throated rage against us and our extremely popular new President. The question is this: will the ditto-heads crank it right up for this "counter-insurgency" and all the other overheated, angry rhetoric that goes with it, or will people put aside the stories we've been telling each other in outrage for decades now about our sworn enemies across the aisle or across the backyard, and get on board this train?

I'd like to leave this off with the words of Bruce Springsteen, in hopes that he'll play this song at today's event at the Lincoln Memorial. No single song captures what I've been feeling this week like "Land of Hopes and Dreams."

Grab your ticket and your suitcase

Thunder's rolling down the tracks
You don't know where you're goin'
But you know you won't be back
Darlin' if you're weary
Lay your head upon my chest
We'll take what we can carry
And we'll leave the rest

Big Wheels rolling through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

I will provide for you
And I'll stand by your side
You'll need a good companion for
This part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there'll be sunshine
And all this darkness past

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams

This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This Train carries whores and gamblers
This Train carries lost souls
This Train, dreams will not be thwarted
This Train, faith will be rewarded
This Train, Hear the steel wheels singin'
This Train, bells of freedom ringin'
This Train carries broken-hearted
This Train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This Train carries fools and kings
This Train,
All aboard