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This is the Age of Paine
NEW YORK -- Faced with the daunting challenge of rallying a nation to the task of undoing eight years of the damage done by a president named "George" who had governed like a king named "George," Barack Obama faced the challenge of finding a founder on whom to rely.
Obama turned to good Tom Paine, the most righteously radical of the revolutionary comrades who initiated the American experiment.
Paine gave the new president -- and the country -- the language that would be needed to celebrate the end of the Bush/Cheney interregnum:
"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (the danger)."
But Paine, less a man of his time than of ours, also gave us the language for the Obama moment.
The great pamphleteer, who died 200 years ago this week, defined the word "change" more ably than any of his successors.
"(A) new area for politics is struck; a new method of thinking hath arisen," he explained in "Common Sense," his call to revolution. "All plans, proposals ... are like the almanacs of the last year; which, though proper then, are superseded and useless now."
Paine, who declared himself the first citizen of the world, anticipated Obama, a president who recognizes that to serve America in these times he must engage with the peoples -- if not always the governments -- of every country on the planet.
The founder who most ardently opposed slavery, who was himself an immigrant to and from and once again to America, who imagined making real the promise of equality, would have celebrated the political transit that was achieved last fall. It was Paine, alone among the founders, who could have imagined a United States that was capable of electing a son of Kansas and of Africa, a man whose family tree has roots that spread to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, a constitutional scholar and author prone toward inspired rhetoric, as its president.
But Paine would have quickly reminded us that America's potential is never realized in the election of a man, or even of a Congress allied with that man.
America's potential is realized when the people, always more radical and more wise than their leaders, demand a new method of thinking in the halls of government.
It was Paine's vision, not for the 18th century but the 21st, that we honored Monday in New York City, the site of his passing two centuries to the day earlier.
In delivering the keynote for the celebration, I argued -- as I have for many years now -- that the "age of Paine," which the ever-cautious John Adams so feared, is not a thing of our past.
It is now.
This is the age of Paine.
Americans have only to realize, as Tom Paine did, that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand."
This is ever the case, ever the possibility, when we recall the revolutionary roots of the American experiment ndsh and the radical pamphleteer who called it forth.