In his recently released book, What Unites Us, Dan Rather asserts that national service is a necessity in a democratic society as ours. This is a theme that I heard often on the road – that some form of national service is urgently needed to break the bonds of isolation that seem to have a grip on social, cultural and political life in America. The isolation of rural from urban modes of life, the isolation of coastal from heartland ways, the isolation of races and the gulf between classes. Our fragmentation in gerrymandered enclaves of class, culture and geography is generally understood to have a corrosive effect on shared democratic aspiration.
Dan Rather has been a respected voice for thoughtful and fair journalism for the better part of fifty years. There is something moving in hearing the words of such an experienced and worldly man take on deeply personal notes, which Mr Rather does as he desperately tries to communicate a voice of both profound concern and heartfelt optimism for our democratic moment. In "What Unites Us" he covers a lot of ground in light, anecdote-laden reflections on a quintessential American life born of modest roots, enlivened by social opportunity and ultimately achieving of professional success. In his highly accessible book, Mr Rather delves into five virtues of patriotism – freedom, community, exploration, responsibility, and character – and draws each out into three essays that illuminate personally meaningful aspects of each, how they have moved him and where they stand in present culture.
Perhaps Mr. Rather's most important message comes in the preface, and it is simply that patriotism is not a cudgel. "I see my love of country," he writes, "imbued with the responsibility to bear witness to its faults." He goes on to explain his view that patriotism is rooted in humility, not chest-bursting pride; it is a constant dialogue with oneself and with fellow citizens about both what we love, and where we must make improvements to our laws, our institutions, and our conduct as a society.
I heard similar themes echoed again and again during my travels across the country (including a shared respect for Abraham Lincoln!). Nowhere did I find anyone content with our nation as we've lived it; often I found the same combination of deep anxiety – to the point of exhaustion in some cases – most often mixed with a cautious optimism that our better, pragmatic and entrepreneurial angels would reveal themselves in time to pull us from this moment of stalemated conflict.
And the prescription? In both Dan Rather's world and the one I encountered along 14,000 miles of Interstate and backroads: education. Education at all levels of society, from our most pompous and insulated leaders right down to our youngest learners: our greatest defense against the erosion of an informed, shared democratic aspiration is education.
If you're interested in following Dan Rather on his journey as he tours with his book, engaging audiences with his soft-spoken gift for direct and clear sentiments, I'd recommend starting at his Facebook page for What Unites Us. From there, if the topics engage, support the effort by snagging a copy of his book – perhaps its a great starting point for your next book group discussion!