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Trade partisan politics for ‘Patriotic Grace’

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan's new book suggests that Americans must face common challenges together — not just by rising above partisanship, but by reaffirming what it means to be American. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Written in the pamphleteering tradition of Tom Paine’s “Common Sense,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan's new book suggests that Americans must face common challenges together — not just by rising above partisanship, but by reaffirming what it means to be American. An excerpt.

Prologue: The View from Gate 14
Where is America?

America is on line at the airport. America has its shoes off, is carrying a rubberized bin, is going through a magnetometer. America is worried there is fungus on the floor after a million stockinged feet have walked on it. But America knows not to ask. America is guilty until proven innocent, and no one wants to draw undue attention.

America left its ticket and passport in the jacket in the bin in the X-ray machine, and is admonished. America is embarrassed to have put one one-ounce moisturizer too many in the see-through bag. America is irritated that the TSA agent removed its mascara, opened it, put it to her nose, and smelled it. Why don’t you put it up your nose and see if it explodes?  America thinks, but does not say.   

And, as always American thinks: Why do we do this when you know I am not a terrorist, and you know I know you know I am not a terrorist? Why this costly and embarrassing kabuki when we both know the facts, and would even admit privately that all this harassment is only the government’s way of showing that it is “fair,” of demonstrating that it will equally humiliate anyone in order to show its high-mindedness and sense of justice? Our politicians congratulate themselves on this as we stand in line. 

All the frisking, beeping, and patting down is demoralizing to our society. It breeds resentment, encourages a sense that the normal are not in control, that politics has lessened everything, including human dignity. Another thing: It reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman. In the new fairness, she is treated like everyone else, without respect, like the loud ruffian and the vulgar girl on the cell phone. The middle-aged woman is the one spread-eagled over there in the delicate silk blouse beneath the removed jacket, praying nothing on her body goes beep and makes people look.

America makes it through security, gets to the gate, waits. The TV monitor is on. It is Wolf Blitzer. He is telling us with a voice of urgency about the latest polls. But no one looks up. We are a nation of Willy Lomans, dragging our wheelies through acres of airport, walking through life with a suitcase and a slack jaw, trying to get home after a long day of meetings, of moving product.

No one in crowded Gate 14 looks up to see what happened with the poll. No one. Wolf talks to the air.

Gate 14 is small-town America, a mix, a group of people of all classes and races and ages, brought together and living in close proximity until the plane is called. Our town appears, the plane is boarded, the town disappears. An hour passes, a new town begins. This is the way of modern life. We live in magic and are curiously unillusioned.

Gate 14 doesn’t think any of the candidates is going to make their lives better. But Gate 14 will vote anyway, because they know they are the grownups of America and must play the role and do the job. 

But here’s something they notice, we notice. Our leaders are now removed from all this, removed from life as we live it each day. 

There is as I write broad resentment toward President Bush, and here is one reason: a fine and bitter sense that he has never had to stand in his stockinged feet at the airport holding the bin, being harassed. He has never had to live in the world he helped make, the one where Grandma’s hip replacement is setting off the beeper over here and the child is crying over there. And of course as a former president, with the entourage and the private jets, he never will. 

Nor will Bill Clinton, nor the senators and leaders who fly by private jet. 

I bet a lot of Americans, most Americans, don’t like it. I’m certain Gate 14 doesn’t.

                                                 ***

All this is part of the mood of the moment. It is marked in part by a sense that our great institutions are faltering, that they’ve forgotten the mission; that the old America in which we were raised is receding, and something new and quite unknown taking its place; that our leaders have gone astray. There is even a feeling, a faint sense sometimes that we have been relegated to the role of walk-on in someone else’s drama, that as citizens we are crucial and yet somehow … extraneous.  

But we are Americans, and mean to make it better. We long to put the past few years behind us, move on, and write something good on the page we sense turning.

This little book, written on the eve of a great election, without knowing how it will end, is intended to remind us of who we are, where we have been, where we are now, and where we are headed — together. 

Part one
This happened to my friend John, an average American kid from New Jersey who grew up in Montclair in the 1930s and ’40s. I stress average. He kept a pigeon coop in the backyard, weeded lawns for ten cents a bucket, and went to the local public school.

When World War II began, John joined the navy, and in May 1944, at the age of 22, he was an ensign on the USS Thomas Jefferson, a former luxury liner that had been converted to an assault vessel. There he was placed in charge of five of the landing craft for the invasion of Europe. 

Each would carry 25 soldiers from the TJ, as they called it, onto the shore of France. John’s landing site was to be a 50-yard stretch of shoreline dubbed Dog Red Beach. It fell near the middle of Omaha Beach, which was pretty much the center of the assault.

The TJ sailed to England’s Portsmouth Harbor, which was jam-packed with ships. On June 1, the Army troops arrived, coming up the gangway one by one. “They were very quiet,” John said when he told me his story in July of 2008. Word came on June 4: the invasion would begin that night. They geared up, set off, but were ordered back in a storm. The next morning, June 5, the rain was still coming down, but the seas were calmer. So about 8:00 that night they cast off to cross the channel. The skies were dark, rain lashed the deck, and the TJ rolled in the sea. At midnight they dropped anchor nine miles off the coast of France. The men were summoned to a big breakfast, eggs and ham. At 2 a.m. the crew began lowering the landing craft, called Higgins boats. The Higgins boats were thirty-six feet long, rectangular, flat bottomed, “a kind of floating boxcar, with head-high walls.” A crane would lower them over the side, and the soldiers would climb down big nets to get aboard. “They had practiced, but as Eisenhower always said, ‘In wartime, plans are only good until the moment you try to execute them.’”  

The Higgins boats pitched in the choppy water. The soldiers, loaded down “like mountaineers,” with rifles, flame throwers, radio equipment, artillery parts, tarps, food, and water, “seventy pounds in all,” had trouble getting from the nets to the boats. “I saw a poor soul slip from the net into the water. He sank like a stone. He just disappeared in the depths of the sea. There was nothing we could do.” 

So they improvised, deciding to board the Higgins boats on the deck of the ship, and hoist them, full, into the sea. John scrambled into a boat with his men, and the crane lifted it, but the boat got caught on the TJ’s railing and almost tipped over and tumbled the men into the water. They held on for dear life. Just at that second a wave came and righted the ship, which untangled the boat, and they were lowered safe into the sea.   

It took John’s five little boats four hours to cover the nine miles to the beach. “They were the worst hours of our lives. It was pitch black, cold, and the rain was coming down in sheets, drenching us. The boats were being tossed in the waves, making all of us violently sick. We’d all been given the big breakfast. Hardly anyone could hold it down. Packed in like that, with the boat’s high walls. A cry went up: ‘For Christ’s sake, do it in your helmet!’”

“Around 4 a.m. the dawn broke and a pale light spread across the sea, and now we could see that we were in the middle of an armada — every kind of boat, destroyers, probably the greatest array of sea power ever gathered.”

Now they heard the sound, the deep boom of the shells from the battleships farther out at sea, shelling the beach to clear a path. And above, barely visible through clouds, they saw the transport planes pushing through to drop paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. “Those were brave men.”

At 5 a.m. they were close enough to shore to recognize some landmarks — a spit of land, a slight rise of a bluff. In front of them they saw some faster, sleeker British boats trying desperately to stay afloat in the choppy water. As the Americans watched, three of the boats flipped over and sank, drowning all the men. A British navigator went by in a different kind of boat. “He was standing up, and he called out to my friend in a jaunty British accent, ‘I say, fellows, which way to Pointe du Hoc?’ That was one of the landmarks. It was expected to be the toughest beach of all. My friend yelled out that it was up to our right. ‘Very good!’ the man cried out, and then went on by with a little wave of his hand.” John later doubted the man had lived another hour.

Closer to shore, a furious din — “It was like a Fourth of July celebration multiplied by a thousand.” By 6 a.m. they were eight hundred yards from shore. All five boats of the squadron had stayed together, a triumph in those conditions. The light had brightened enough that John could see his wristwatch. “At 6:20, I waved them in with a hard chop of my arm: Go!”

They faced a series of barriers, heavy metal rods. They made a sharp left, ran parallel to the shore, looking for an opening, got one, turned again toward the beach. They hit it, in a foot or two of water. The impact jarred loose the landing ramps to release the soldiers as planned.  But on John’s boat, it didn’t work. He scrambled to the bow, got a hammer, and pounded the stuck bolt. The ramp crashed down and the soldiers lunged forth. Some were hit with shrapnel as they struggled through to the beach.  Others made it to land only to be hit as they crossed it. The stuck ramp probably saved John’s life. After he’d rushed forward he turned and saw, to his horror, that the man who’d been next to him the whole trip, the coxswain to whom he’d barked orders — “Hard to port, make it smart, we’ll look for an opening!” — had been hit by an incoming shell and decapitated. The shell likely would have hit John too if the bolt hadn’t stuck and the door hadn’t jammed and he hadn’t run for the hammer.

The troops at Omaha Beach took terrible fire. Half the soldiers from John’s five boats were killed or wounded. “It was a horrible sight. But I had to concentrate on doing my job.” To make room for the next wave of landings, John raised the ramp, backed out, turned around, and sped back to the TJ. “I remember waving hello to the soldiers in the incoming boats, as if we were all on launches for a pleasure cruise. I remember thinking how odd that such gestures of civility would persist amid such horror.”

Back at the TJ, he was told to take a second breakfast in the wardroom — white tablecloths, steward’s mates. It was surreal, “from Dog Red Beach to the Ritz.” As he ate he heard in the background the quiet boom of the liberation of Europe. Then back to a Higgins boat for another run at the beach. This time the ramp lowered, and he allowed himself to get off.

Dog Red Beach was secure, littered with wrecked landing craft of every kind. The bodies of the dead and wounded had been carried up onto a rise below a bluff. He felt thankful he had survived. “Then I took a few breaths and felt elated, proud to have played a part in maybe the biggest battle in history.”

John went on to landings in Marseilles, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. After he came home he went to work at a relatively small Wall Street investment firm called Goldman Sachs, and in the next fifty years he went on to chair it, to work in Ronald Reagan’s State Department, and to head great organizations such as the International Rescue Committee.  He is, in that beautiful old phrase, a public citizen.

But if you asked him today his greatest moment, he’d say that day on the beach, when he was alive and young and had done something dazzling. “At that moment, dead tired, soaked to the skin, I would not have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.”

When I asked John Whitehead why he had done what he’d done, he spoke of things you’ve heard before — patriotism, a young man’s excitement at wearing the uniform, an acceptance of the idea of sacrifice. And something else. 

One day, as a teenager, just before or just after the war began, he saw something amazing.   He was swimming off the Jersey Shore with his friends, and suddenly there, peering up from the waves, was the periscope of a submarine. A German submarine, surveying the American shore.  The sight amazed and shook him. America was under threat. It needed his protection.  

It was a straight line from that moment to Red Dog Beach.

                                                   ***

Why do we tell these stories?  Because tales of courage move us, inspire us. Because we long for greatness, and wish to know the specific facts and data of a heroic act so we can fix it more firmly in our minds. Because our country is more divided now than it was then, and it comforts us to think of a time when we were united, and did something great. 

Excerpted from “Patriotic Grace: How We Lost it and How We Can Recover It.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Peggy Noonan. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins. To read more, click .