For many Americans, the current political downdraft seems disheartening, steals our energy, makes us alternately frustrated, discouraged, and on some days openly upset that some portion of this country does not understand how unique America is, how much sacrifice was required to get us here, the beacon of hope we represent for the world. Make no mistake – we are that beacon, and the future is bright.
I hear you now, saying “what makes him think so?” or “what kind of fantasy is he living?” or “maybe he thinks that is where we are headed, but not me.” Just for a moment, stop and think with me…
Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell, for whom I worked, subscribed for good and sound reasons to the idea that, if the bow can swing either way, dash you on rocks or take you home, you should believe in the power to get home, the power to avoid the rocks. As Powell said, “Optimism is a force multiplier.”
This is not Pollyanna speaking, that is a man who grew up poor, born in Harlem, first generation American, 35 years in the Army, Vietnam, then – with faith and determination – worked daily with Ronald Reagan, helping dismantle the Soviet “evil empire” peaceably, became the Nation’s top military officer, a four-star, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, then founded an organization for mentoring kids, “America’s Promise,” dedicated ten years to it, pivoted back to government, became Secretary of State.
Colin Powell, even in his darkest days, did not lose hope – not in the power to forgive and be forgiven, live and live for others, make a difference in his time, or in the magnificence and promise of America.
Aware of his imperfections, which created and reinforced humility all his life, he also tried to model strength, even when doing it as hard, knowing if the boss is strong in rough weather, the crew will be.
One day, Rich Armitage, Powell’s trusted-like-a-brother Deputy, pulled me into his office. “The boss is going to make an announcement…that he is going to be away for a few days, but this is what is happening …” I listened, I marveled.
Powell was out briefly. Four days later, he reappeared – after what was described as a short break. In truth, as the world learned later, he had gone straight for prostate cancer surgery. The surgery is reportedly painful, generally takes six to eight weeks for recovery. He was in the seat in four days.
It was the way Reagan never lost heart, hope, or strength after he was shot, when he nearly died, when it took months to recover, and even then things were iffy. Reagan himself never lost sight of duty, honor, commitment, and the need to give all he could while he could, because the nation needed him.
Why did both men do that, resolve to overcome, in small ways and larger? Why did they take the hopeful view, the can-do approach, resolve to lead, rise, and give when it would have been so much easier to flee, writhe, and give in? Reagan also overcame adversity, his father an abusive alcoholic.
The answer has to do with their imbibing deeply of the American Dream, believing that what they could dream they could do, what they could imagine for their future selves they could make happen. And this innate optimism, this belief in the possible – really reduced to a belief in America as a reservoir of hope.
No where else in the world do dreams, once conceived, more often become real than here. And the blessing buried in this reality is that, like some giant virtuous circle, once a dream is made real by hard work, if failures are followed by learning, trying again, success – what follows is a lesson, hope rewarded.
To make that circle complete, think about those respected today – and throughout America’s history – just kids who dreamed, worked hard, lived with hope, and succeeded. Many ended up in leadership roles, which in turn reinforces the power of hope, faith, and truth nested in the American Dream.
Thomas Jefferson, who articulated the American Dream in our Declaration of independence was a reluctant candidate. Still, he knew unlikely outcomes often turn on risk and hope. Mixed with work and principle, hope is a powerful catalyst, the thing that makes it work – like optimism, a force-multiplier.
Said Jefferson, speaking of freedom individually and nationally, “if you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.” He did, Americans did, it happened.
The point: It can happen in any time if we believe, understand, and do not give up on what this nation is and has always been – a beacon of hope, for individuals and the world. Again, these are not just words; they are reality. Americans have saved themselves and the world countless times, and can again.
You will now ask “how?” The answer again is not hard. Look to history. You see we are a constantly self-correcting republic, our Constitution the “ballast,” hope and resolve our rudder. We have not been dashed on the rocks, but always found our way home – again and again.
To this simple observation, add that we are a nation of faithful people, the media and naysayers notwithstanding; most Americans, in night’s darkness, are people of faith. Add our Bill of Rights, and perspective: Freedom and those who love it are always under fire, always have been, nothing new.
The difference, thing that makes us different, deepness of America, is that we are a people who – as individuals and collectively – do not surrender, ceaselessly offer hope. We are a beacon for each other and the world, and must not forget it. America embodies hope. So, find it, have it, hold it, live it, give it.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.