05/11/2012 10:58 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

Unifying Americans

A rare moment occurred in the nation's capital a few weeks ago. Democrats and Republicans, adherents of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and people with no political leanings or even interests came together. As the space shuttle Discovery, bolted to the back of a 747, passed overhead on its way to a permanent home in the Smithsonian Museum, people left their offices, homes and politics behind and looked skyward. If they were old enough, they may have recalled the early days of space flight as well. If they were too young, perhaps parents, grandparents or work colleagues told them about John Glenn or the first lunar landing. If only for a brief time, everything was, as Glenn put it as he hurtled into orbit, "AOK."

Such unifying moments are, by their nature, few in number. But America needs more of them. It takes a lot to lift us out of our everyday cares and squabbles, but a country that is overly focused on what divides it will find itself, increasingly, more divided.

We have had unifying moments in the memory of many of us. We celebrated the defeat of Nazism and rejoiced when the Berlin Wall, and communism, crumbled. We saved Europe after World War II and, in so doing, created a world economy that lifted us as much as it did everyone else. We landed on the moon, on Mars, and saw the past history of our universe through the Hubble space telescope. We conquered polio and smallpox. We gave women and African Americans their long-denied rights and made the nation safer and more hopeful for people with disabilities. We built an interstate highway system that tied us together as a nation and stimulated our economy. We protected the elderly against poverty and the very poor against the costs of ill health. Aided by photos of the earth seen from the moon, we took the first steps on the long road to clean our air and water and save species from extinction.

A core task of national leadership is to unify Americans -- to find such challenges, give them meaning and hope, and marshal our energy and collective effort to address them. We hunger for such leadership. We are not getting it. The Republican call to cut government and give Americans more of their own money to spend is as uninspiring as is the Democratic cry to tax the wealthy -- and both serve to divide rather than unite us, however sensible or desirable their proponents find them. They represent a lowering of our aspirations when we need to have them lifted.

Soon after President Kennedy issued the challenge to "land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth." He said in a 1962 speech that, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win..."

Accomplishing such challenges was hard. They required the best of us. They required sacrifice -- of our time, energy and often lives. They required government and the private sector to work together, and government taxation to make that work possible. They required a long-term commitment. They required leaders to lift our sights to a common purpose and to suffer attacks from those whose views were too limited in scope and hope. They required leaders to remind us as well of our moral purpose and that building a stronger community means paying less attention at times to serving our personal interests.

We have no lack of such challenges today. Ending the threat of nuclear weapons, saving our environment from irreversible damage, eradicating poverty in the richest nation on earth, modernizing the infrastructure vital to our future, truly becoming energy independent, and massively reducing the debt that threatens the standard of living of generations to come are among the worthy, and lofty, goals that could unite us if we are well led.

No doubt our leaders and our government have over-reached in the past. The War on Poverty, the War on Cancer, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Rights Movement, the Cold War and other national calls to grit and greatness had their failures, their waste, and their scandals. But they gave us a common purpose that ignited our energies and inspired our hopes for what we could become. They did not end conflict among us, but they helped us know that we were meant for more than fighting each other, that e pluribus unum is on our dollar bill and in our national DNA for a damn good reason.