Modern America Looks Nothing Like Dad Would Recognize

David M. Shribman critiques the current political environment of the United States in the form of a letter he writes to his late father.

Dear Dad,

         I’ve been thinking about you more than usual these days, this time of year being the 18th anniversary of your death. I am constantly wondering how I would explain to you what has happened to the country that your father sought as a refuge from tyranny and servitude, that your brother died for in Pacific combat during World War II, that you served later in that conflict, and that I grew up revering for the promise and opportunity it provided and for the values it sought to preserve and extend.

        I am afraid you would not recognize the place. You left us in a world coming undone -- it had been a mere three years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 -- but you could not have had any inkling about how swiftly things would fall apart, redeeming the William Butler Yeats view that, in his poem as in our contemporary world, the center cannot hold.

        Here is a measure of how much the world has changed and the center has failed to hold. You lived by a simple aphorism: All things in moderation. That meant that you could have a drink, or maybe two, but never more. It meant that you should order a restaurant meal with an eye toward the right-hand side of the menu, with steak and lobster off-limits, always. That meant that you should see the virtues of all sides of an argument and search for where they intersect, always with an eye to the greater good, always with your own interests sublimated to those of the many.

        There is no moderation in the world you left behind. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. And the gap between rich and poor is so wide that the rich don’t worry about the right side of the menu, and the poor cannot contemplate a restaurant meal. The Red Coach Grille is gone, and so is the Valle’s Steak House chain; even the sprawling Hilltop empire on Route 1 in Saugus has been shuttered. About a tenth of Americans now consider themselves vegetarians or vegans.

        The Republican Party you revered -- the party of sturdy habits, good manners, respectability and restraint, frugality and prudence -- has acquired many of the attributes of an outlaw mob. The Democrats you remember -- Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey -- have vanished and are replaced by another breed, lurching leftward, more comfortable in academic robes than in union windbreakers.

        I never forgot how your father -- my grandfather -- gave me a book about the U.S. Capitol. It was stamped with the name William H. Bates, the moderate Republican congressman from Salem who voted for all five important civil-rights bills of the era but who would be repelled by his party today and regarded as a hopeless antique. I remember how the bright white of the Capitol dome nearly shimmered off the pages of that book, and during the decades in which I covered Congress for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. I never failed to look at that dome with the awe that I first felt as a 10-year-old. I am ashamed to tell you that 20 months ago, the Capitol was overrun by insurrectionists, its walls breached, its offices trashed. A bare-chested man wearing a horned fur headdress and carrying a flagpole topped with a spear tip rampaged through the building, looking as if he were howling, and threatened the vice president.

        I also have never forgotten that as a child, you met a handful of Civil War veterans, probably during a Memorial Day parade down Salem’s Essex Street. I am ashamed, too, that the acceptability of violence in our civic life is so rife that sober people are talking about the country enduring another civil war. This kind of talk would have been inconceivable in your lifetime. It is reprehensible in mine.

        You taught us to beware of blowhards. The Republicans nominated the blowhard of the century in 2016; he was elected, and then refused to believe he was defeated four years later by a minor-league blowhard who was about the age you were when you left us.

        Nobody -- well, almost nobody -- gets a print newspaper anymore. People use their telephones to take pictures. Two giant oaks of your time, and of mine, were felled in recent days; Bill Russell and Mikhail Gorbachev have just died. Both were misunderstood. Both will be missed.

        Remember all the talk about “conservation,” then about “ecology” and finally about “the environment”? Now there is great worry that the Earth is burning up and that our climate may be changing so fast that we may be shocked at wintertime temperatures, lose the polar ice caps and not recognize the shorelines.

        You remember your parents talking about the Spanish flu that raced through the country six years before you were born? We have been in a pandemic -- even kindergarteners know the meaning of that word today -- for 2 1/2 years. More than a million Americans, and 6.5 million people worldwide, have died because of the COVID-19 virus.

        Surely, you must be thinking, there has to be some good news. There is. Your family is healthy. In all, there are nine marriages, all intact. You have four great-grandchildren, and your grandchildren, all eight of them, are splendid citizens. They are grown, your true legacy. I wish they could hear your wisdom and, young people being young people, heed some of it -- and, of course, recognize its value as the years accumulate.

        That surely has been my experience, and that of my brothers and sister. You cannot imagine how often we start a sentence with four sad but noble words: “Dad used to say ...” The other day I put on one of your shirts. It didn’t quite fit, literally or symbolically. We can’t fill the void you have left behind.

        I should close by saying that there remains one element of American life that you would recognize. The Red Sox are in last place.

        We love you and miss you, and we miss the world you and Mom and your generation sought to build. That world looks better every day, even though we didn’t always think that. But now every day brings new travail and tumult, and now it seems that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.




        Editors: For editorial questions, please contact Lisa Tarry, ltarry [at] 




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About The Author 

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He was awarded the Pulitzer price in 1995 for his coverage Washington and the American political scene. He served as national political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, covered Congress and national politics for The New York Times and was a member of the national staff of The Washington Star. He now teaches at the Max Bell School of Public Policy. 



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