What Gabby Giffords taught us about citizenship

What Gabby Giffords taught us about citizenship

The bands played, the confetti flew and the pundits pronounced on Bill Clinton’s folksy wonkiness, Jennifer Granholm’s YouTube-ready theatrics and President Obama’s “workmanlike” acceptance speech. I’m consumed, however, by the less-expected star turns by understudies at last week’s Democratic National Convention.

I was inspired anew by Tammy Duckworth, the Iraqi vet who lost both legs in combat but is now running for Congress. I was cheered by vice-presidential spouse Jill Biden, who reminded her audience that she still teaches school because the job fulfills her. And I was profoundly moved by Gabby Giffords, who made a gutsy appearance to lead the Pledge of Allegiance on the final night.

I teared up before Giffords began to form her first word. Assisted by her close friend Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the National Democratic Committee, the former congresswoman walked across the stage with a slow and awkward yet determined gait. Her entrance illuminated her slow, agonizing and halting recovery from a lunatic’s bullet to her brain in January 2011.

As she spoke, her words occasionally slurring, her face was focused yet beaming. It was the most powerful Pledge of Allegiance I’ve ever witnessed — made more so by her unflinching loyalty to a nation in whose service she was fatefully wounded. In an era of unabashed cynicism toward politicians and hearty skepticism toward the very notion of public service, she was a stirring reminder of the enduring power of unselfish citizenship and genuine patriotism.

And, yes, I meant “patriotism.”

This is an age of showy but insubstantial affectations of love of country — of flag-waving, medal-counting and boastful, heedless pronouncements of American “exceptionalism.” The most hawkish of arm-chair generals (John McCain, excepted) are those least likely to have actually served in uniform, and the binding thread of democracy — a notion of the common good — is being cut to shreds by the demented hyper-individualism of an egomaniac named Ayn Rand.

But Giffords reminded me that there are still many Americans — and that includes Duckworth and other veterans we saw last week — who reflect an uplifting and exclusive vision of democracy. They embrace the notion of a common good, of a citizenship that gives as well as receives, of public service as a moral calling.

Nothing is so popular these days as contempt for Congress. Heaven knows, some of its members deserve that disdain. There are more than a few among them who are self-aggrandizing, bigoted blow-hards — bereft of any real understanding of the complex problems they are called upon to solve. But there are also many others who ran for office because they believed they might actually do some good, who spend long hours attending to the needs of their constituents, who are committed to a self-governance that requires sacrifice from all its citizens. Giffords represents the best of that ideal.

She might have chosen to stay off the public stage. Many so wounded would have done so, choosing to live out their lives without risking a public slip that would call forth the pity of strangers and the mindless commentary of the Internet. But she chose, instead, to represent the concepts of courage and duty and resilience to which so many public figures give lip service — but only that.

President Obama, rightly, endorsed the battered concept of citizenship in his speech. “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”

But Giffords embodied it; her movements may have been fragile but her faith in her country and its resilience — and her own  — is steadfast. That was more powerful than a month’s worth of political rhetoric.