The President's plane touched down at Tuscaloosa Regional Airport at 10 am this morning, local time.
That's Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA.
These are the moments that bring us together as a nation, and as people. Just like 9/11 did, before people used it to divide us. I left New York City for the suburbs just a few weeks before 9/11, and lost friends when the planes struck those towers near my old office. We felt love and support from every part of the country back then. Hopefully the people of Alabama feel ours today.
Back then the country singer Alan Jackson, who has his share of fans around Tuscaloosa, asked: "Where were you when the world stopped turning? Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer, and look at yourself and (at) what really matters?"
What really matters. We spend so much time vilifying one another that takes a tragedy to bring us together. As bitterly divided as we get, most of us still care about one another in time of need. When President Bush spoke from the rubble of the World Trade Center, it seemed for a moment that he spoke for all of us - even those of us who questioned the way he became President. President Obama represents us today in Alabama. The hand he's offering is our hand. The help he's sending comes through the government, but it comes from us. That's all a government really is, when democracy's working: It's just us. So hold on, Alabama. Your country's here for you.
People say that it takes a tragedy to bring us together, but maybe that's wrong. Maybe it takes a tragedy to remind us that we're already together.
Alabama's Governor, Robert Bentley, upset a lot of people when he took office by saying that people who weren't Christians weren't his brothers and sisters. ""So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
That ticked some people off, as you might imagine. The President of the American Atheists said it was "outrageous" and added. "He is a governor, not a mullah." That's a reasonable reaction, but so's this one: Aw, that's just how those born agains talk. I had cousins like that. The Governor said hewants to be my brother, which is evangelical talk for proselytizing me, but I've got news for him: He's already my brother. He may not find me in the next pew, but we're brothers. And another brother came this morning to tell him the whole family's here.
Now, Governor Bentley is a Republican and, like most Republicans, he'd rather cut government spending than raise taxes. And in the tradition of Dixie politicians from time immemorial, he pretty much told Uncle Sam to go hang in his inaugural address: "I will defend our right to govern ourselves, under our own laws and to make out own decisions without federal interference," he said.
Yesterday he asked for emergency federal assistance. I could get indignant, I guess. Last time someone looked, Alabama was getting $1.71 in Federal money for every $1.00 it pays in Federal taxes. And interference was appropriate back in the civil rights days. But Alabama's hurting, and now's not the time to quarrel with my brother the Governor. Besides, I'm not indignant. If they get more money than we do, it's because they need it. That's the way a good government works. We all pay what's fair, and if someone else needs more help they get it. The Governor did the right thing by asking for our help yesterday. I'm glad he did, and I'm glad we can give it.
What's more, I respect Gov. Bentley, despite our differences. He wants to cut the state budget by 15%, but he laid out some ground rules in his first State of the State address: "Medicaid, which provides health care to approximately one million children, elderly and disabled people must be protected ... " He also said that there will be no teacher layoff or shortening of the school year. If you're stuck on framing everything as "left" or "right," that puts him to the left of a lot of Democrats in Washington. And politics aside, it makes him a decent man.
I will make one respectful request of the Governor: to ask his Republican colleagues in Congress not to cut funding for the agencies that help protect people from violent storms, as they've already voted to do. But whether or not he does that, he's my brother.
Besides, Alabama has a place in my heart. Aretha, Otis Redding, Bobby Womack, Percy Sledge ... everybody recorded in Muscle Shoals. Hank Williams was from Montgomery. The great Louvin Brothers came from Henagar, in the mountains. Their beautiful harmonies influenced the Everly Brothers, and through them the Beatles. Arthur Alexander was born in Sheffield, and he's the only songwriter to be covered by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. The great and too-often overlooked Eddie Hinton was from right there in Tuscaloosa.
And let's not forget Lynyrd Skynyrd. Once I was dating someone interesting - very interesting - and I took her to see Skynyrd and ZZ Top. I could tell by the look in her eyes she was having second thoughts about me. Really, Mr. Sophisticated? Southern rock? But then Skynyrd started playing and she was yelling just as loud as as those bottle blondes in the tight stars-and-bars t-shirts ...
(Did somebody just yell "Free Bird"? Go ahead, wiseguy, but they're great. And you're damn right I married her. You don't let one like that get away.)
Why talk about music in an hour of tragedy? Because music's an expression of the heart, and our hearts are close even when our politics aren't. Lynyrd Skynyrd likes to attack liberals in general, and President Obama in particular, with songs like "God and Guns" and "That Ain't My America." But they're great musicians, and everybody fights with their brothers sometimes. Those songs didn't stop the President from taking that morning flight, did they?
Rebecca Solnit wrote a book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Solnit described our response to catastrophes this way in an interview: "The great majority of people are calm, resourceful, altruistic or even beyond altruistic, as they risk themselves for others. We improvise the conditions of survival beautifully. People rescue each other. They build shelters and community kitchens and ways to deal with lost children and eventually rebuild ..."
Pulling together can even bring economic benefits. Some people were surprised when the Japanese yen strengthened against the US dollar last week. But economists were already predicting that the Japanese economy would rebound and become even stronger because of government spending to rebuild. Do we need to learn that lesson the hard way, too? We're still in a financial disaster. It didn't leave visible wreckage, but we'd allbe better off if we did more to rebuild from it.
But this isn't about money. It's about us. Why does it take a tragedy to bring us together? If we respond this way in times of great need, then isn't that who we really are? This generosity of spirit must be inside us every day. If we can reach out to those who lost their homes in a whirlwind, why can't we do the same for those who lost their homes because of the banks?
One purpose of government is to express our inward generosity every day, even when we're busy going about our daily lives. When it's working right, government lets us be our best selves, without terror or tragedy. It represents our bond, our spirit.
The Bible says God talked to Job from a whirlwind. I'm no clergyman, but I think the message was that some things must be accepted rather than understood, because there are limits to our understanding: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? ... while the morning stars sang together and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?" But even when we can't understand, we can help.
I've never heard the morning stars singing together, but I've heard the Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I wish I could've been there to help, and I'm grateful that my President and my government were there to offer my hand in brotherhood when I was so many miles away.
Where were you when the world stopped turning on 9/11? You were in lower Manhattan, represented by the President. As the head of our government, he stood in the ruins and spoke for you. Where were you when the winds ripped through Tuscaloosa? Your plane touched down at 10 am this morning.
Paid your taxes already? Thank you. If you'd like to do more to help, try donating to the Alabama Red Cross. And let's not forget the victims in other states. The governor of Mississippi, the one who ticks me off so much, arranged for donations to be made here; hope he collects a million bucks. The local Salvation Army seems like the best bet for Georgia.
Mississippi gave us the blues - the blues! It gave us John Hurt and BB King. And Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, both of them, which means it gave us rock and roll too. Georgia gave us James Brown, Johnny Mercer, the Allman Brothers, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Travis Tritt, and our old friend Alan Jackson. And all three states gave us writers like William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald ...
Here's a sampler of fine Alabama music you can listen to while you're donating. Like the man on the record says: Turn it up!
Songs recorded in Alabama, or made by Alabamans (or both)
Aretha Franklin, "Think"
Hank Williams, "Hey Good Lookin'" (only known film clip of Hank - and that's June Carter doing the comedy bit that opens; she was the comic in the family band for a while)
Arthur Alexander, "You Better Move On"
Bobby Womack, "Lookin' for a Love"
Otis Redding & the Pinetoppers (very rough quality), "Shout 'Bamalama"
Louvin Brothers, "Alabama"
Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama"