Colin Powell had better watch out or he'll become the conscience of a nation. That's a title he doesn't seek. It's already claimed anyway, by Rush Limbaugh.
Powell recently said that his party, the Republican Party, was listening too closely to voices like Limbaugh's and heeding its "lesser instincts rather than its better instincts."
Among those are intolerance and barely subtle race-based appeals.
On cue, Limbaugh's rambling defense asserted among other things that Powell supported Barack Obama because of his race. Maybe that's how some of Limbaugh's constituency assigns its affections. But if Powell has demonstrated anything in his long career, it is that he's not a one-note instrument.
Powell also derided a campaign appeal beat into paste by Sarah Palin - that rural islands of small-town homogeny represent America values while more diverse urban centers do not.
"Most of us don't live in small towns," Powell told CNN's Fareed Zakharia last weekend. "I was raised in the South Bronx, and there's nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx."
The ‘Real America'
This statement, and the false dichotomy that exalts red-state sameness as the "real America," comes to mind with a wonderful anecdote from a man in New York who got to introduce a Russian couple to America.
Rick Stevens lives in upstate New York. But he was in the Big Apple at JFK International last March to welcome Igor, Ina and their son to the United States for the first time. They were blown away.
The beauty: "We were driving over the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan. The sun was just starting to set and all the lights were on. Even as a jaded Manhattanite with 25 years living on the island (I now live in upstate NY), I was still spellbound by the sight."
The plenty: At an ethnic restaurant, the waiter brought salad the visitors ate with great relish, then a beef barley soup. "They ate that and were stuffed. When the waiter brought the entree - beef goulash over buttered noodles with sauteed string beans on the side - they looked quizzically as though to say, ‘So, what's this?'"
They had thought the soup was the entree. It was more than enough for them.
Stevens recounts the couple's astonishment at the quality and variety of food. At an Italian bakery in the East Village, Ina was "almost in tears when she saw the pastries displayed."
But it wasn't just food and bright lights that left an impression.
"They kept remarking at all of the different people they saw on the streets: Caucasians, Asians, blacks, Hispanics," Stevens wrote. His guests "had been under the impression that Manhattan was only home to wealthy whites, with all of the other races relegated to positions of servitude."
This is the part of this feel-good story worth retelling. The essence of America in these people's eyes wasn't just the means of production, the means of getting around, the means acquired to survive and thrive.
What was remarkable also was the synthesis made out of difference.
As with New York City, America's president-elect embodies this - son of a mixed marriage, a black child owing much of his upbringing to a white grandmother. The appeal in the campaign used against his was a specious "he's not one of us." Of course, that was code for an "us" that never defined us, even back to this nation's colonial origins.
The vote tally Nov. 4 demonstrated that we can rise above our lesser instincts. A nation the world has come to observe with suspicion and derision can again be the model for civility and inclusiveness symbolized by a certain lady in a certain harbor.