If Thanksgiving is a day to pause and reflect upon those things for which we should feel gratitude, I have a long list that begins with my personal health. Exactly five years ago, on the day after Thanksgiving 2010, I was struck down by a sudden illness that almost killed me. I owe my life to the remarkable doctors, nurses, hospital workers, dear friends, and brave family who all helped to save me; and in a thousand other ways too, I know that I am blessed.
Yet it would feel wrong to celebrate my own good fortune without addressing the far less happy condition of so many, many people in our nation and world. At this moment, millions of immigrant families confront fear and insecurity, as political demagogues vilify and threaten them. Muslim Americans face intimidation from those same opportunistic bigots. Black Americans suffer resurgent racist assaults, especially when speaking out in their own defense. And on the other side of the world, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking only to save themselves and their children from murder and enslavement know that much of the supposedly civilized world, including many political leaders in this country, is coldly turning them away.
That is why I want to express thanks that Barack Obama is president of the United States.
Last year on this day I noted, while acknowledging his flaws and errors, “how much worse our situation might be” had Obama’s opponents been in control from January 2009 to the present instead of him. To me, “the undeniable truth is that Obama righted the nation in a moment of deep crisis and set us on a navigable course toward the future, despite bitter, extreme, and partisan opposition that was eager to sink us rather than see him succeed.” None of that has changed, of course — and in the current atmosphere of bigotry, recrimination, and psychopathic rhetoric, the president’s calm, rational, decent voice is more vital than ever.
The presidential nominating process of one of our two major political parties is elevating an ambitious television personality whose campaign is based on sinister appeals to xenophobia, suspicion, and anger. Like a Queens-born version of Mussolini, Donald Trump tells big lies about Mexicans and Muslims, encourages violence among his fanatical followers, and issues hollow, bombastic rants about “making America great again.” Most of Trump’s Republican rivals seem envious of him, when they should be disgusted by his plans to “register” Muslims or his promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants; their objections to his outrages have largely been equivocal, indirect, feeble, halting. In his wake, they have been all too eager to denigrate the innocent refugees as potential “terrorists” — and to dispose of cherished American values without a backward glance.
Trump promises to make Americans proud of our country again, but the spectacle of furious thousands cheering him at a rally evokes revulsion and shame.
So when President Obama speaks out to defend immigrants and refugees from the scurrilous abuse of Trump and the Republicans, I feel a deep sense of gratitude – just as I do when he chooses diplomacy over war, as he did in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and science over propaganda, as he continues to do in his diplomatic and domestic efforts to address climate change.
With his own admirably cool style, shaking off the vicious attacks of his adversaries every day, the president upholds our venerable ideal of malice toward none and charity for all. In different ways that ideal was embodied in his predecessors, the presidents who originated and revived this most generous of national holidays – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt – and its endurance is reason to be thankful indeed.
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey during the 68th annual presentation of the turkey in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington November 25, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria