It had been a good Thanksgiving, and the day after, I was sitting in a small coffee shop way out west getting ready to resume the drive back to Raleigh. The television was turned to a news station, and President Obama was commenting on something to do with foreign policy (the volume was too low to discern what exactly).
A woman at a nearby table was grumbling about Obama. Another woman at her table reckoned that she didn't much care for him, either, but that "he is, after all, our president."
"He's not mine," the grumbler said. End of discussion.
Doubtless this woman would call herself a patriot. She appeared to be about my age, which means she would have heard stories of World War II and Korea from people who were there, would have lived through Vietnam and the wars of more recent vintage, would have in her lifetime lived under a dozen presidents, six Democrats and six Republicans. She would have known in that office men who were moderate of both parties, Republicans who were very conservative, Democrats who were liberal.
She is old enough to have seen that there have been people in the office who were extremely competent, others not so much. She's aware that America has survived a multitude of self-inflicted challenges to the credibility of presidents, from Richard Nixon's skulduggery to Bill Clinton's moral stupidity.
She knows as well that the U.S. of A. has survived it all, and that in hard times the country has a way of pulling together, even when the political philosophy of the sitting president is not to everyone's liking.
But Obama is not her president, she says.
Her view is many things, but is it patriotic? One does not have to like all presidents. And thanks to the freedoms outlined and specified by the Founders, one doesn't even have to respect them all, though that would be the best thing. But to deny a leader of this democracy because of party or philosophy is appalling. Particularly in view of the sacrifices that have been made to preserve the free speech the grumbler exercised.
Which brings us to last Sunday night, at Raleigh's Quail Ridge Books, where some old soldiers from North Carolina gathered in support of "We Remember: Stories by North Carolina Veterans of World War II," edited by WWII vet C. Russell Reynolds, a Raleigh native who prior to retirement taught at several public and private universities and colleges.
The men in attendance, WWII vets all of course, where very elderly, but clear-headed in their remembrances of that war. Some of their stories were funny (Reynolds and a buddy once stole a plane to enjoy some R&R in Paris) and some very grim, such as James Earl Stanford's recollection of being sent by the Navy to help in the burial of German seamen killed off the North Carolina coast. Or the other stories like Raymond Sugg's recall of his experience at bloody Anzio.
Cy King, perhaps Raleigh's most famous liberal activist and anti-war demonstrator, was there, not to speak against war, exactly. What many of Cy's conservative critics don't know is that he was in one of the most grim fights of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. It was that experience, he said, "that made me a peacenik."
Russ Reynolds' compilation is simply spectacular, and it ought to be a textbook in every high school and university in North Carolina. Every day in this country we lose around 1,000 World War II veterans, and too soon there were be no eyewitnesses to the war left. All those at Quail Ridge were in their late 80s or early 90s.
They came home, made the most of their opportunities, and have cherished forever the freedom they won for us all. Some still have nightmares. Others prefer not to speak of their service at all, fearing it would be seen as bragging. They are Republicans and Democrats, and all over the lot as to where they stand on the political and social issues of the day.
But the most conservative among them respects the liberal King, because he made the same sacrifice of youth and innocence they did. And the feeling is mutual. Because they are all Americans.
So should it be for everyone. Even for presidents.