The sun has set long ago and the sky is dark. I drive through a bustling metropolis, or a small town, or sometimes the lonely countryside. But there is one constant: My bags are packed and I am heading to an airport. I weave through busy city streets with neon signs. Buildings, too high to count the floors, stutter by me in the traffic. I head down rural roads — farms, fields, and forests flying by my window, illuminated only by my headlights and the infrequent passing car or truck.
Night flights have been a staple of my career heading to, from, and between datelines. Airports at night, especially when your flight is the last one out, are usually places of stillness. In the terminal, the shops and eateries are darkened and shuttered. Cleaning crews prepare for the coming day. I arrive at my gate and give a half nod to my fellow travelers. Most people understand that the expected behavior on a night flight is one of silence. This is a time when you are allowed, even encouraged, to be alone with your thoughts.
The taproot for this book was developed over my numerous journeys these many years. If I were to plot on a map my countless flight paths crisscrossing the United States, it would look like a thread stitching our great union together. Along the way, I have forged my own relationship with America, not only from the stories I have reported and the people I have met, but also during those many hours while I waited for sleep that only sometimes came. I look out the window at lights far below or, more often than not, just darkness. We are still a land of wide open spaces. As our great and diverse republic passes below me, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and wonder: Who are we? Where are we going?
The opportunity for me and my generation to confront those questions is rapidly receding. Like the generations before us, we’ve risen to some challenges and shied away from others. We helped steer the United States through some perilous straits, but we find ourselves once again confronting rocky shoals. I worry about how important norms of American life are being shattered, along with a unity of purpose. I see the chasms of entrenched partisanship, growing inequality on income and opportunity, and the lingering injustices around race, gender, and sexual orientation. I think of my children and my grandchildren. How will they and their generations answer the call?
We hear often of America’s destiny. All around Washington we see marble temples and monuments to our democracy. They look so solid and seem so rooted in history that we imagine them permanent features on the landscape. Never mind that those buildings, when compared to the life span of other nations, are but new construction. They were built to infuse a sense of awe and purpose in the populace of an improbable country. They are only as permanent as our ideals. And if we lose a sense of humility, we risk losing everything.
The true foundations for those buildings are not brick and stone, but our Constitution, our rule of law, our traditions, our work ethic, our empathy, our pragmatism, and our basic decency. As I have seen over the years, when we cultivate these instincts, we soar. When we sow seeds of division, hatred, and smallmindedness, we falter. As a wave of anxiety sweeps our nation, as big challenges loom before us, I feel an urgency.
America at its best is a wonderful, diverse, and spirited chorus. When we sing together, our message is amplified and it can shake the heavens. The songbook for our democracy is infused with our history, the joy of our glories and the pain of our failures. Its music and lyrics can and must be taught to those who will come after us.
This book is an effort to describe how that music sounds to me, to highlight the melodies that I find resonating in our republic’s core strengths. I profess no great wisdom other than as a chronicler with the exceptional fortune of having had a front row seat to much of our country’s history. The issues I will raise are too big for any one voice to handle, and I hope my words will spark contemplation and discussion.
Over the years, I have been joined on these journeys by many treasured colleagues, and one of them is my friend and collaborator on this book, Elliot Kirschner. He and I are separated by many years, and we come from different backgrounds. But we share a deep love for the United States, its history, culture, and people. Our conversations over more than fifteen years of night flights, long car rides, meals, and drinks have helped hone our thoughts. This book is therefore a product of a unique partnership. Elliot’s deep knowledge of the American journey and his gift for writing and storytelling have helped these essays immeasurably.
The United States does not belong to any one of us. Its strengths and riches give its citizens tremendous advantages, but we must not deplete them for the future. That wisdom and compassion can also extend beyond our borders. Many of my night flights have taken me around the globe, and I have seen that most people are rooting for the United States to succeed, not by virtue of its military or economic might, but because of our ideals.
As the cabin lights come on and the captain announces our final approach for landing, groggy passengers stir. A welltrained flight crew has delivered us safely to our destination. I see these air journeys as a metaphor for our national direction. We are bound together by our destiny, and we must work to ensure that there are calm and steady hands at the controls of our government. We can cover great distances, improbably escaping the limitations of gravity, if we choose to embrace the best of our traditions. This is what we hope to inspire with our book.
Excerpted from What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner.
© 2017 by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.