Most of the public discourse in this country is about what is wrong, what needs fixing. This is as it should be. Things that are going well should be mostly left alone.
Everyone once in a while, however, it is worth thinking about what makes this nation great.
To my mind, what makes America great is her people, the ordinary everyday people who do the work that God and fate have assigned them as best they can and without too many complaints. The strength of the nation resides almost entirely in the men and women who seek no greater titles than “dad” or “mom” or who work at or own one of the 30 million businesses in the United States or who wear their nation’s uniform or who serve in its governments.
Almost all of us are destined to live and die mostly unheralded except by family and friends and those whose lives we have touched. That’s OK. The true measure of a life is not the number of Twitter followers or Facebook friends we have; it is how we have helped the people we encounter.
One such American who has lived both a common and extraordinary life celebrated her 89th birthday last week. Mary Lee Fenton was born in October 1932, at the very bottom of the Depression. She grew up poor in a poor town in Michigan. Her father was an itinerant presence in her life, and her mother and grandparents primarily raised her. She determined as a child to have a big family and to stay married.
She left home at 17 to make it as an actress in New York City. Like many, her initial dream was deferred by a marriage that lasted 54 years and produced eight children, 25 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. Like their parents and grandparents, those offspring have served in the military, taught school, started businesses, led charities, worked in government, funded churches, and generally have been productive and useful citizens.
Because F. Scott Fitzgerald is wrong and there are second acts in American lives, she returned to her original vocation somewhere along the way. She acted on stage, on television and in the movies. Unfailingly optimistic and cheerful, she has survived the kind of setbacks that all of us face with grace and humor and a good portion of steady Midwestern resolve.
In short, Mary Lee has led the sort of life that America makes possible. Never wealthy, but never wanting either, she has made the most of her time and opportunities and will, when called home, leave the world a much, much better place than she found it.
The good news is that there are millions of good people like her all around us. President Lincoln said simply: “God must love the common man, he made so many of them.” For all of us who are common men and women, distinguished only by the love that God has for us and the work that we do in our allotted time, those words can only bring comfort.
For the United States, the presence of a wide and deep ocean of such people is good news indeed. President Clinton once said: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” What is most right with America is her people.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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