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Mark Shields - 09/18/09
The End of the "Me" Generation?

Beyond the constitutionally mandated annual State of the Union addresses, presidential speeches to a joint session of Congress - of the kind that President Barack Obama delivered on health care reform last week - are historically rare.

In fact, in the first 124 years of the United States, John Adams was the only president who - just once - addressed a joint congressional session. So barring a major national security crisis, it's a good bet that President Obama will not be speaking anytime soon to another joint session on Capitol Hill.

On Sept. 9, 2009, Obama successfully reminded many listeners why he was - other than Franklin D. Roosevelt - only the second Democratic presidential nominee in U.S. history to win more than 50.1 percent of the nation's popular vote.

Yes, he persuasively made his case for reforming the nation's health care system. But what captured my attention and raised my spirits was that President Obama, in addition to rightly casting the question of who receives health care as a moral issue, actually treated us, his fellow citizens, as if we were capable of thinking beyond our own narrow self-interest.

He read from the dying Ted Kennedy's final letter to him: "What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character our country."

Obama added that "large-heartedness - concern and regard for the plight of others - is not a partisan feeling. It's not a Republican or Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character - our ability to stand on other people's shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together."

Here, the president was not going through the predictable routine of just telling each of us exactly what was in it for each of us.

Instead, he told you and me what was "in it" for us and for our fellow Americans: calling us all to be full partners in an admirable national community that honors and embodies justice.

For too long, our political language has been impoverished. Candidates from both parties regularly pander to us (successfully, let it be noted) as shallow and selfish individuals with the same question: Are you better off than you were two - or four, or eight - years ago?

The question, rather than "Am I better off?" ought to be, instead: "Are we better off? Are the strong among us more just? Are the weak among us more secure? Are the people who grow and harvest our food, the people who clean our offices, park our cars, care for our children (in addition to their own) and change the soiled sheets on our hospital beds - are they, our brothers and our sisters, better off?"

The political leader who believes that we might actually respond to a reminder of our obligations as well as the privileges of American citizenship pays us a genuine compliment. Is it possible that we just might be witnessing the sunset of the "Me Generation" and, perhaps, even approaching the dawn of a "We Generation" - where we recognize our interdependence and all that we owe to each other?

We may not be the masters of our destiny. But we can still be the captains of our souls and our brother's keeper. That, too, is an essential part of the American character.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.