(Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)
William Rivers Pitt delivered the keynote address at the Jefferson County Democrats 35th Annual Eleanor Roosevelt Awards Dinner in Colorado on September 19, 2009. Below is a transcript of those remarks.
I got stuck this past week trying to prepare my remarks for this event. I couldn't remember the year I was last here. I remember it was wintertime, because the car I was in got pelted with gravel - I guess the sand and salt craze hasn't caught on here yet. I had to call Mary Patee and ask her to jog my memory: when was the last time I was in Denver? Was it 2003 or 2004? I felt pretty stupid having to ask, but I really couldn't remember. Those years are all kind of a blur for me now. Is that true for anyone else? Good, I'm not alone on this.
It was 2003 when I was last here, as Mary was kind enough to remind me. I went digging through my files to look over some of the things I had written back then. It was not, as you can imagine, a cheerful exercise. People talk about nostalgia and walking down memory lane like they are good things, and plenty of times they are. Sometimes, however, history has teeth, and if you enter into its lair, you're very likely to get bitten.
The last time I was here, I was busy writing stuff like this:
Saddam Hussein, former employee of the American federal government, was captured near a farmhouse in Tikrit in a raid performed by other employees of the American federal government. That sounds pretty deranged, right? Perhaps, but it is also accurate. The unifying thread binding together everyone assembled at that Tikrit farmhouse is the simple fact that all of them - the soldiers as well as Hussein - have received pay from the United States for services rendered. It is no small irony that Hussein, the Butcher of Baghdad, the monster under your bed lo these last twelve years, was paid probably ten thousand times more during his time as an American employee than the soldiers who caught him on Saturday night. The boys in the Reagan White House were generous with your tax dollars, and Hussein was a recipient of their largesse for the better part of a decade.
That was six long years ago. Still kind of hard to believe. Even now, eight months into a new presidential administration, this brave new \world, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around everything that happened. The last year of the George W. Bush administration left me paralyzed as a writer, because everything I had to write about was everything I'd already written about a thousand times already. I couldn't do it. It was just too much.
Here's how much I despised George W. Bush, everything he stood for, and everything he did: after the Democratic primaries were over, the GOP threw a bag over George, taped his mouth shut, and threw him into a basement somewhere, to try and keep him from screwing McCain's chances (turns out McCain didn't need any help on that score ... Palin? Really? I mean, thanks, John, that pick made things a whole lot easier in November, but ... really?). June, July and August went by with my television free from the sound of George's grating, dimwitted, nookyalurr voice.
And then the market meltdown kicked into high gear, the economy ate itself, the next Great Depression was upon us ... and dammit dammit dammit, George was back on my television again. Hearing him talk again after that glorious three-month respite was, weirdly enough, the worst part of that whole financial calamity for me. I got screwed along with everyone else, and I'm terrified of how this is all going to shake out, but hearing him blather again after a nice summer off was the last, cruelest twist of the knife ... but I still couldn't write about it. I finally kicked myself out of my funk the only way I knew how: I wrote George W. Bush a love letter.
In it, I tried to explain to him, and to myself, why it is my stomach turns - even to this day - into an iron ball of rage, fear, disgust and loathing at the mere mention of his name. With that letter, I was able to put some kind of a frame around the hideous mess of memory that I still haven't gotten completely straight. Here's a bit of what I wrote to him:
It's funny. I was thinking the other day about when I marched in one of the first large-scale post-inauguration protests against you in Washington, DC. It was May of 2001, it was The Voter's Rights March to Restore Democracy, and it was a few thousand people shouting down the unutterably ruinous Supreme Court decision which unleashed, just as we then feared, everything that has since come to pass. "Not my president!" we bellowed. "Not my president!"
It's funny because that memory seems so very quaint to me now. A stolen election? Pfff. To paraphrase a different president, Americans get scarier stuff than that free with their breakfast cereal nowadays. Thanks to you, governor.My All-Time-Grand-Prize-Bull-Goose-Gold-Medal-Winning list of what you've done, in no particular order, and in my own humble opinion:
Less than a month after those Towers came down, a reporter asked what you thought we should do. "We need to counter the shockwave of the evildoer," you replied, "by having individual rate cuts accelerated and by thinking about tax rebates." I happened to be watching television and heard you say that live into a camera. The only reason I didn't throw up on myself is because my teeth were clenched too tightly for the vomit to pass my lips. I swallowed hard, grabbed a pen, and wrote down what you said and when you said it. It was October 4, 2001, just after nine in the morning. You'd like people to remember you standing on that pile of rubble in Manhattan, you with the bullhorn and the heroic pose. I, however, will always remember you pitching tax cuts to a devastated nation while a pall of poison smoke still hung in the air over Ground Zero.
A few years later, you wanted hundreds of billions of dollars diverted from other areas of the federal budget and into your war in Iraq. You took more than $70 billion out of the budget used by the Army Corps of Engineers in Louisiana, money they needed to fund the repair and maintenance of the New Orleans levee system. Katrina struck not long after you took that money and poured it into the sand, and the levees failed for lack of funded upkeep. Through this, along with your disinterested disinclination to help your own countrymen in their hour of darkest need, you played the very last note for that old, sad, lost American city. Reflected in those actions are the same budgetary priorities that motivated you to turn Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the hospital where I was born, into an abattoir of suffering and neglect for the wounded soldiers you tore apart for a lie.
You let Dick "Crazy-Eyes" Cheney do whatever the hell he wanted to whomever he wanted whenever and wherever he wanted, and be damned to the damned old Constitution anyway. Cheney once said the vice president's office was not part of the same branch of government as the president's office - yes, the VP is not part of the Executive Branch - and he said it with his bare face hanging out the whole time. Why? He didn't want to give any of his official papers over to the National Archives, as mandated by at least two federal laws. Nope, he said, my office is in Congress today, sorry about that, but be sure to come on back after you drop dead. Or words to that effect. That's about one zillionth of a percent of what Cheney did, because you let him pick himself to be your boss.
On July 19, 2006, you vetoed H.R. 810. On June 20, 2007, you vetoed S.5. Both vetoes killed legislation aimed at funding and vastly enhancing the reach and scope of stem cell research in America. The father of someone I know died of bone marrow cancer just after that first veto; he was adopted, no family could be located, so no donor match for a bone marrow transplant could be found. With stem cell therapy, doctors could have taken his own marrow and grown enough healthy, matching marrow to save his life. Two other people I know have diabetes, like millions of Americans. Stem cell research could offer them a cure. The woman I will marry three weeks from today has multiple sclerosis, and stem cell research could very well help her, too. She'd write you a thank-you note for those vetoes, but her right hand doesn't work so well anymore. She's getting better with her left hand, so maybe that note can get written next year.
Also, you defied lawfully issued subpoenas and potentially set a precedent that could shatter the separation of powers. You told the American people Iraq was in possession of 26,000 liters of anthrax, 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin, 500 tons - which is one million pounds - of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent, 30,000 missiles to deliver the stuff, mobile biological weapons labs, al-Qaeda connections to 9/11 and uranium from Niger for use in a robust nuclear weapons program, even though all of that was a lie. You made a joking video about not being able to find any of it. You outed a deep-cover CIA agent who was running a network designed to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists, and you did so because her ambassador husband told the truth about you in the public prints.
You gave away our right to privacy by sending the NSA to spy on us. You turned us all into torturers and butchers in the eyes of the world with your decision to use Abu Ghraib prison the same way Saddam Hussein once did. You tried to appoint Henry Kissinger to lead the investigation into 9/11. You turned the entire Justice Department into a carnival of political hackery. You championed the economic policies and deregulation fantasies that have left the financial stability of millions in ashes. You used the threat of terrorism against your own people in order to give yourself political cover. You killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who did you nor me nor any of us any harm.
You did all this, and so much more.
I would read more of that, but I'm worried I might light the podium on fire. That is our history, and like I said, it has teeth.
But as they say, that was then and this is now. Putting aside any and all grievances you and I may hold regarding the acts and activities of the Obama administration, you have to admit, it is a brighter day. I actually voted for President Obama twice - calm down, once in the primary and once in the general - for a variety of reasons, but none more than this: I don't think Obama can change everything that needs changing.
I don't think any one election or any one president can repair the damage done over the last eight years, not to mention the damage done over the last half-century. I believe Obama has done much good work, and will do much good work in the years to come, but the challenges we face as a nation and planet are so daunting, it is fantasy to believe this president, or any one president, can address everything before us.
"Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards," said German sociologist Max Weber. "It requires passion as well as perspective." My perspective, and the final reason I voted for Obama, is as Mr. Weber said. The process of change takes lifetimes, it is slow, it is grueling, it is excruciating, and it is filled with defeats and setbacks. Especially now, in this degraded age, when only half the country votes, when the vast majority of young adults know all the contestants on "American Idol" but can't name three Supreme Court justices, don't know the name of their representative, don't know the names of their senators, don't know about Vietnam, or the Cold War, or Nixon, or Johnson, or Reagan, don't know history and how it has long, long teeth, don't know those teeth have been sunk into their flesh, and don't have any idea how to do anything about any of it.
People are unbelievably cynical now, as voter turnout statistics can attest to. A lot of people don't believe things can change, so they don't bother trying to try to even dare to imagine it ever could. That's why Obama got my vote: he has that once-in-a-lifetime gift that lets him elevate people, inspire them, fire them up, and make them believe change is possible. Before anything can change, people have to be convinced there is actually hope, that they can make a difference, that a difference can be made.
Obama, to me, is the first step on a very long road. He's not going to fix everything, but he is a good start, the best start I've seen win that office in my life, and even with all the darkness and everything that has gone so horribly wrong, that is a light to absolutely celebrate. He has the power to inspire, to make people believe change is possible, and I am telling you now, no change is possible if people don't believe it can happen ... but all things are possible if people do, and that is what President Obama has the potential to do and to be: the motivating factor that changes doubt to hope. Nothing is possible without that, and everything is possible with it.
Also, and for the record, President Obama has:
Created a foreclosure prevention fund for homeowners. Expanded loan programs for small businesses. Expanded eligibility for the State Children's Health Insurance Fund (SCHIP). Expanded funding to train primary care providers and public health practitioners. Allowed caskets to be photographed when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan to Dover Air Force Base, with family approval. Granted Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send money to Cuba. Pushed for enactment of the Matthew Shepard Act, which expands hate crime law to include sexual orientation and other factors. Increased funding for the NEA. Funded a major expansion of AmeriCorps. Banned lobbyist gifts to executive employees. Invested in all types of alternative energy. Enacted a tax credit for consumers for plug-in hybrid cars. Provided grants to encourage energy-efficient building codes. Extended unemployment insurance benefits and temporarily suspended taxes on these benefits. Kicked off an explosion of public works repair and construction all across the country with his stimulus bill, which put a whole lot of people back to work and which is changing the face of the nation. Reversed restrictions on stem cell research.
... and that's just a partial list. Not bad for government work, eh? Not bad, but by orders of magnitude not enough. The number of things that need to be immediately addressed, fixed, changed, altered or done away with entirely is so long, it would take ten times the number of people in this room ten lifetimes each to see them all to completion, and with the risk of utter failure absolutely present every step of the way.
So Bush is out and Obama is in and change has come, and you've probably read or heard this enough times already, so let's move on, because reality must sadly intrude, because change has not in fact come, not really, not nearly enough. We won some elections, and that's great, but the truth of the matter is that we have not won anything, not one thing, except the chance to move that ball down the field.
One matter that remains to be resolved has to do with the survival of the rule of law in America, and the continued applicability of our constitutional form of government. The issue stems from the Bush administration's declared parameters regarding the scope of executive privilege and power. When the scandal surrounding the firing of those United States attorneys erupted some years back, several committees of the House of Representatives decided to investigate the matter. They sent out a number of lawfully drafted and legally produced subpoenas to the White House demanding that Bush administration witnesses, along with any and all relevant documentation, be produced for Congressional hearings looking into how and why the decision to fire these attorneys was reached.
The Bush administration responded to these subpoenas by telling Congress to get bent. They declared everyone and everything requested by the subpoenas to be off-limits due to their definition of executive privilege. In short, and according to Bush's definition of executive powers, not one agency, institution or individual anywhere in America had the power to question or investigate anything done by the White House, ever, period, end of file and thanks very much.
This gets sticky for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is the matter of oversight and separation of powers within the federal government. When one branch of government declares itself above the law and free from meddlesome oversight by other governmental branches, as required by the Constitution, what remains is the absolute annihilation of the rule of law and the end of America's form of government as it has been practiced for the last quarter of a millennium.
This specific issue is all but certain to wind up in the hands of the Supreme Court one of these days. The Congressional committees, whose subpoenas were spurned, decided to hold the White House in contempt, which initiated a legal process whereby the matter of Bush's definition of executive privilege will eventually be decided in the courts ... which brings us to Scary Problem #2.
There is no settled, definitive, black-letter law on the books in America that specifically sets the parameters for the execution of and limitations on executive powers. The United States Constitution contains exactly 15 words in a single sentence explaining the matter, right at the beginning of Article II: "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America." The Federalist Papers go into far greater detail, but those are documents with no legally binding power, so this one sentence is really all there is.
To be sure, this is not the only gray area left by the founders to be sussed out by future American generations: the right to privacy, the right to bear arms and the right of all citizens to vote were, along with several other issues, not originally settled in the final drafts of our founding documents. Unlike these other issues, however, executive power has never been directly and clearly settled, neither by legislation nor judicial decision, and remains undefined as a matter of law.
The closest we've come was in the 1974 Supreme Court decision in US v. Nixon, which ordered President Richard Nixon to cough up those Watergate tapes after he had refused to do so. While the high court did agree with Nixon's argument that broad executive powers are an absolute necessity for the secure performance of presidential duties, that privilege cannot be deemed absolute.
"To read the Article II powers of the President as providing an absolute privilege as against a subpoena essential to enforcement of criminal statutes on no more than a generalized claim of the public interest in confidentiality of nonmilitary and non-diplomatic discussions," wordily claimed the court in the 1974 decision, "would upset the constitutional balance of 'a workable government' and gravely impair the role of the courts under Article III."
In other words, the Supreme Court decided executive privilege exists, but not completely, and executive powers are broad, but not absolute. Put another way, the court said "Yeah, but also no," and left the issue quite completely unsettled as a matter of law. Therefore, if the case pertaining to those fired US attorneys and Bush's dismissal of those legally-issued subpoenas ever comes up for adjudication by the Supreme Court, their ultimate decision will be binding.
If they rule in favor of Bush's definition of executive privilege, the constitutionally mandated oversight powers, to be executed by separate but equal governmental branches, will be null and void on the spot. That will create an imperial executive branch the likes of which even Cheney couldn't imagine, permanent secrecy, and the end of the rule of law in this country.
So, that's one thing we are going to have to deal with down the road, and never mind the impending departure of more Supreme Court justices, which sets up a whole different conversation about whom to appoint in their place and what those appointments will mean to the future of American law. That's a whole 'nother kettle of crawfish entirely, but one that has everything to do with Senate majorities, filibusters, upcoming midterm elections and so on.
Also, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians are still dying in places like Baghdad and Tikrit, and that whole mess did not resolve itself after Obama's election. Far from it. Afghanistan is even more disturbing, for that matter, because the administration sounds like it is about to make our presence even larger over there, and August was already the deadliest month we've endured over there since the whole thing began eight years ago. The economy is still mostly in shambles, the constitutional abrogation of privacy rights via governmental surveillance programs is ongoing, the environment is still dirty, public schools are still shabby, racism and sexism still hold great sway and even the right of all our citizens simply to marry one another remains very much in the wind, as demonstrated by the passage of California's deplorable Proposition 8.
So, yeah, there's that. And there's more. It does not, in fact, get easier from here.
The challenges before us become even more daunting when you consider the caliber of those arrayed against us. April 9 was a Sunday in 1865, and in the town of Appomattox, Virginia, the sun was shining down on the end of a war. Confederate forces, led by Gen. Robert E. Lee, had finally been brought to bay by Gen. Ulysses Grant after four grueling, blood-sodden years. Lee's surrender at Appomattox was the conclusion of the largest and deadliest armed insurrection in American history.
April 9 was a Thursday in 2009, and there are some lo these 144 years later who would very much like to see another armed insurrection erupt within these United States. The casus belli for today's would-be revolutionaries is not states' rights, slavery or economic independence, but is instead a toxic mix of fundamentalist Christianity, ultra-conservative orthodoxy, a whole lot of gibberish about birth certificates and tea bags and, more than anything else, guns.
The existence of armed and angry insurrectionists in America is nothing new. As Robert Kennedy once observed, "One-fifth of the people are against everything all the time." The militia movement, in one form or another, has been a part of our history literally since the founding of the nation itself, and memories of Waco, Ruby Ridge and the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City remain acutely fresh in mind even years later.
Lately, the news has been flooded with reports of citizens arming themselves to the teeth, some of them within proximity of our president, egged on by right-wing media personalities prophesying doom, the rise of socialism, and that a Marxist dictator now sits in the Oval Office. This frenzy has been spilling from talk radio and television out into the streets for months now, and has recently metastasized into acts of outrageous violence. It smells like a new beginning of something this nation has not been forced to endure for nearly a decade.
Last April, a man named Richard Poplawski ambushed and murdered three Pittsburgh police officers and tried to kill nine others. Poplawski's motivations, according to friends and family, centered around his belief in the existence of a vast government conspiracy to destroy American freedoms while establishing a left-wing dictatorship under President Obama. Poplawski came to believe all this after listening to and reading the paranoid rantings of right-wing luminaries like Alex Jones, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Last July, a man named Jim Adkisson walked into a Universalist church in Knoxville and began blazing away with a 12-gauge shotgun, killing two people and wounding several others. He had 70 shotgun shells with him, and fully intended to massacre as many people in the church as possible before police killed him, but he was tackled and disarmed by members of the congregation before he could complete his task.
Eric Boehlert, writing for Media Matters on April 7, said, "When investigators went to Adkisson's home in search of a motive, as well as evidence for the pending trial, they found copies of Savage's 'Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder,' 'Let Freedom Ring' by Sean Hannity, and 'The O'Reilly Factor,' by Fox News's Bill O'Reilly. They also came across what was supposed to have been Adkisson's suicide note: a handwritten, four-page manifesto explaining his murderous actions. The one-word answer for his deed? Hate. The three-word answer? He hated liberals."
"The only way we can rid ourselves of this evil," wrote Adkisson, "is kill them in the streets. Kill them where they gather. I'd like to encourage other like minded people to do what I've done. If life aint worth living anymore don't just Kill yourself. Do something for your Country before you go. Go Kill Liberals!"
Describing the Pittsburgh incident, Boehlert wrote, "In the wake of the bloodbath, we learned that Poplawski was something of a conspiracy nut who embraced dark, radical rhetoric about America. He was convinced the government wanted to take away his guns, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Specifically, Poplawski, as one friend described it, feared 'the Obama gun ban that's on the way' and 'didn't like our rights being infringed upon.' (FYI, there is no Obama gun ban in the works.) The same friend said the shooter feared America was 'going to see the end of our times.'"
"Hysterical warnings of government gun grabs and a socialist takeover of the US are no longer the sole proprietary interest of fringe players like Jones," wrote Max Blumenthal. "In the Obama era, Jones's conspiracy theories have graduated to primetime on Fox News. And radicals like Poplawski are tuning in. Indeed, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the alleged killer posted a YouTube clip to (neo-Nazi web site) Stormfront of top-rated Fox News host Glenn Beck contemplating the existence of FEMA-managed concentration camps allegedly for the detention of conservatives and Christians. Three weeks later, Poplawski posted another YouTube clip to Stormfront, this time of a video blogger advocating 'Tea Parties,' or grassroots conservative protests organized by Beck and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich against President Obama."
There have been more stories like this in recent months, and if history is any guide, there will be more to come. The timing of all this is deeply troubling, and the media players involved are all too familiar. There is something sinister at work here, something malevolent, something sly.
Consider the curious historical synchronicity of all this: after the inauguration of a new Democratic president, there has been a sudden upsurge of right-wing polemicists agitating right-wing citizens into right-wing-motivated acts of violence. The last time things came together like this was back in 1993, after the Waco and Ruby Ridge debacles, combined with the passage of NAFTA and the Brady Bill, detonated into a militia movement that was wildly active, and exceedingly violent, throughout the entirety of President Bill Clinton's two terms.
Dozens of militia-related incidents, including the Oklahoma City bombing, took place during those years. In 2001, however, these incidents stopped almost completely, and for the entirety of George W. Bush's two terms as president, hardly a peep was heard from the militia movement that had been so robustly vigorous during the administration of Bush's predecessor.
A Democratic president takes office in 1993 and the militia movement explodes, egged on by a whole host of right-wing media voices.
A Republican president takes office in 2001 and the militia movement, along with those media voices who sponsored it, all but disappear from the American political landscape.
A Democratic president takes office in 2009, and once again, right-wing media voices begin their clarion call for armed revolution, and once again, a portion of their listeners erupts into violence.
"In Politics," President Franklin Roosevelt once said, "nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way." Indeed.
Change will not be easy, and as it stands today, advocating for or trying to enact that change is a potentially deadly endeavor. Now, I'm sure more than a few of you are wondering why someone invited Billy the Bummer to speak tonight, but it is what it is. I'm mortally sure our honored guests, Bob and Marilyn Young, are all too aware of how hard change can be to achieve, how dangerous it can be to body mind and soul, how much effort it requires, and how far we have yet to go.
Marilyn suffered a stroke, but kept on that hard road. Bob went through a bypass surgery, fought for his union, fought in Korea, but kept on that hard road. Both have volunteered, near as I can tell, for pretty much everything that has needed volunteers in Colorado Democratic politics for the last two decades. They licked the stamps, stuffed the envelopes, made the phone calls and held the signs on frigid street corners, they've done everything, and it was all hard work, but it has all borne the fruit that gives us hope. They have made the change we all wish to see in the world, and for doing so, they are heroes.
So for you, our honored guests, I will close with a Boston story about, and bear with me, St. Patrick's Day. St. Patrick's Day for most of the country is a day for wearing green and eating corned beef and cabbage and listening to the Pogues and getting really, really, really, really drunk. In Boston, we do things a little differently. Don't get me wrong, it's still St. Patrick's Day there. Every single one of the 500 billion college students who lives there was mumbling, stumbling, barfing-down-their-Flogging-Molly-shirt wrecked by the end of last St. Paddy's Day, just like the one before and all the ones to come, and all wore more scally caps per square inch than anywhere in the world outside of Dublin.
But St. Patrick's Day is also called Evacuation Day in Boston, and that's a really good story. It begins a few miles down Route 2, on the green in Lexington on April 19, 1775, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. The American militiamen chased the British Regulars all the way back to Boston, where they dug in and laid siege to the city for the next eleven months. The British had total control of the city, and the British fleet had fully invested the harbor. The desire by both sides to occupy the heights above the city led to the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, but the engagement proved indecisive, though more costly to the British on balance, and the combatants lapsed into a stalemate that would last through the winter.
The American militias were faced with a dilemma. Within the city, the British were heavily enforced with both men and heavy weapons, and the fleet in the harbor had enough firepower to annihilate the city. The Americans, on the other hand, barely had an army at all. The militias were so light on weaponry, in fact, that they were issued spears at one point to fend off a potential British attack. But then a young bookseller named Henry Knox had an idea. Earlier that spring, Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen had led a successful attack on Fort Ticonderoga, 300 miles northwest near the southern tip of Lake Champlain in the province of New York. The lightly defended fort had fallen, delivering to Arnold and Allen a large number of British cannons.
Knox put the question to Gen. George Washington: What if we brought those cannons to Boston? Washington signed off on the plan, and dispatched Knox and a large force of men to Ticonderoga on December 1. Knox arrived four days later and immediately began disassembling the guns - 43 heavy cannons, six coehorns, eight mortars and two howitzers - to be loaded onto specially made flat-bottomed boats. They had to make the 30-mile trip across the lake before it froze, and rowing into a howling gale, barely made it before ice took hold. By Christmas, several feet of snow lay over the hundreds of miles standing between the guns and the city. Using 80 oxen, Knox and his men dragged 42 sleds weighing more than 5,000 pounds each past Albany, across the frozen Hudson and across Massachusetts, finally arriving in Boston on January 24, 1776.
Six weeks later, British General Howe looked up at Dorchester Heights above the harbor and was flabbergasted to discover American gun batteries trained down on the precious British fleet. The militias had distracted British forces with a skirmish in Cambridge the night before, and had quietly sneaked the cannons onto the heights, constructing emplacements right under the British force's nose. They had even piled logs in next to the actual cannons in order to make it seem as if they were even more heavily armed. "The rebels did more in one night," Howe said, "than my whole army would have done in one month."
For a while, the British tried to clear the rebels off the heights with tremendous barrages fired from the fleet. Exactly four Americans were killed, and the rebels happily collected more than 700 cannonballs that had fallen harmlessly around them. Finally, the British sent word to Washington that they would not destroy the city if they were allowed to withdraw unmolested. Boston was emptied of British forces as the troops were loaded onto the ships in the harbor. On March 17, 1776, the winds became favorable, and the fleet put to sea. The British were gone, never to return. It was, and has been ever since, Evacuation Day in Boston.
So, what does this have to do with everything I've been talking about? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Henry Knox dragged more than 200,000 pounds of gunmetal across a frigid lake, a frozen river and 300 snowy miles of New York and Massachusetts. With this one unimaginable act of leadership, Knox freed the city of Boston from British control, and began the downhill run towards the Declaration of Independence and national liberation. The entire enterprise proved to be a long and grueling slog, but nothing better represents the ordeals of that age than Henry Knox, his oxen, his sleds, his men and his journey.
The moral? Hard times require true patriots, audacity, courage, strength and endurance ... one step at a time. This country was forged by men and women daunted by the seeming impossibility of their situation, but who never wavered, and who eventually prevailed. Men and women like Bob and Marilyn Young. Thank you for all you have done, and for all you will do, for all of us.
And for the rest of you, I leave you with a poem from the astonishing activist, Daniel Berrigan. A friend of Berrigan's, Mitchell Snyder, who worked long and hard as an activist for the homeless in Washington, DC. Berrigan penned these lines in memory of Mitchell Snyder, and it is in these lines that I find my hope and strength when I feel like quitting, when I feel overwhelmed, overmatched or undone.
Some stood up once, and sat down
Some walked a mile, and walked away
Some stood up twice, then sat down,
"I've had it" they said.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
"It's too much," they cried.
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
They were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked.
They walked the earth,
They walked the waters,
They walked the air.
"Why do you stand," they were asked, "and why do you walk?"
"Because of the children," they said,
"And because of the heart,
"And because of the bread,
"Because the cause is the heart's beat,
"And the children born
And the risen bread."
For all of you who stand, and for all of you who walk, the cause is the heart's beat. It is hard, it is daunting, but this is the simple truth of all great works and endeavors. We have won nothing, not really, not yet, but we can, if you will stand with me and each other, and if you walk.
So let us begin again. Thank you.