THIRTY years ago, in our nation's bicentennial year, Americans rejoiced in their good fortune and God's blessings. Their country was secure; their freedom assured. Their annual Fourth of July observance of that independence - from the parade of tall ships in New York harbor to band concerts and bursts of fireworks from sea to shining sea - reached unprecedented levels of enthusiasm and patriotic celebration.
Today, we are still free but far less secure, and 1976 seems so long ago.
Babies born in that relatively happy time have become young adults in a much different nation. They are turning 30 in an era of great uncertainty and turmoil. Twenty-six years after the grand and extravagant days of the nation's bicentennial - on July 4, 2002, 10 months after 9/11 - Americans paused and realized once more just how precious and vulnerable their freedom is.
Today, on this day of family picnics and pyrotechnics, the emotional healing has barely begun, nearly five years after Sept. 11, as evidenced by the refusal of many Americans to go see Hollywood dramatizations of the awful events of that day, and by the lack of visible progress on a suitable memorial at Ground Zero.
America - having eliminated Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda's number two man, Abu al-Zarqawi, as threats but still searching for Osama bin Laden - is reminded again of the folly of taking its liberty for granted.
Back on July 4, 1978, the nation's 202nd birthday, we said that it was a difficult business to stop and take stock of the nation's balance sheet or to try to capture the essence of America. That remains true today on the country's 230th birthday.
James T. Farrell once wrote: "America is so vast that almost everything said about it is likely to be true and the opposite is probably equally true."
The following assortment of comments about this land and its people, reprinted from that 1978 editorial and expanded in the years since, bears out Mr. Farrell's statement.
We Americans worship the almighty dollar! Well, it is a worthier god than hereditary privilege.
- Mark Twain
We (Americans) have a great ardor for gain, but we have a deep passion for the rights of man.
- Woodrow Wilson
We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.
- James Madison
There are no second acts in American lives.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
In nothing is there more evolution than the American mind.
- Walt Whitman
America is a very large, friendly dog in a very small room. Every time it wags its tail, it knocks over a chair.
- Arnold Toynbee
If an American were condemned to confine his activities to his own affairs, he would be robbed of half of his existence.
- Alexis de Tocqueville
On our national character:
The American people, taken one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goosesteppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages.
- H.L. Mencken
What is it that distinguishes the American Man from his counterparts in other climes; what is it that makes him so special? He is quietly affirmative. He is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
- John Updike
The life of a nation is not at the seat of government, but in the daily actions of the people. The government does not create people. People create government.
- Columnist Charlie Reese
America is great because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great again.
- Alexis de Tocqueville
Freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained except by despotic governments.
- George Mason
Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any public official, save exactly to the degree he himself stands by the country.
- Theodore Roosevelt
Whatever else an American believes or disbelieves about himself, he is absolutely sure he has a sense of humor.
- E.B. White
I sometimes thank that the saving grace of America lies in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans are possessed of two great qualities - a sense of humor and a sense of proportion.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
We Americans are an obsessively moral people, but our morality is a team morality.
- Edgar Z. Friedenberg
If we ever pass out as a great nation we ought to put on our tombstone: "America died from a delusion that she had moral leadership."
- Will Rogers
There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right: It is the ideal American who is all wrong.
- G. K. Chesterton
They (the American colonists) are a race of convicts and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.
- Samuel Johnson
To all those observations, some poignant, some funny, some cynical, let us add one more from Sept. 11, 2001:
Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America.
- President George W. Bush