It looked to be a fairly slow 4th of July around here, since Becky is back in Ohio, and we aren’t even allowed to grill out at our apartment complex. I’m not a big fan of blowing my fingers off, so that pretty much leaves out the other favorite activity here in Guymon, setting off fireworks. That seems to happen to me a lot. Since high school, when I would march with the band in the morning and work at the band concession stand in the evening, I’ve had to work, or had other commitments. My last year living in Elyria, I was working eight hour days in my apartment on a freelance arranging project that ended up paying for Becky’s and my honeymoon. I did pull a chair over to the fourth floor window and watched the local fireworks display. This year, I can hear them, but I can’t see them. The first time I ever heard Ives’ Variations on America was on the way home from work at midnight on July 3/4 on the radio. A life-changing experience.
This year, I heard that former President George W. Bush was going to be speaking in Woodward, the closest town of any size that is still in Oklahoma. The drive is 120 miles through the Panhandle–land that was mostly once part of the Dust Bowl and still hasn’t been much developed (not that that’s a bad thing). The road is straight as an arrow, and I’ve done the drive several times–it’s the best way to get to Oklahoma City from where we are.
At any rate, somehow, Woodward, Oklahoma was able to get Dub-ya to come speak at their July 4th festival, Let Freedom Ring. According to NPR, they were expecting the largest crowd since he left office. His speech was nothing spectacular. For a while at the beginning, I thought he was just going to do “material” a la Jerry Seinfeld for forty minutes, but he did get down to business after a while with a decent message about patriotism being something we can all take on. He seemed more relaxed, at ease and, dare I say, happier than I’ve heard him sound in the last eight years, which is to be expected. He spoke with a “just-folks” mannerism that the “just-folks” in Woodward loved. I really think the arena was filled with the kind of people that keep him living in Texas. No foundation office in New York for him. Still, If he hadn’t been a former president, the highlight would have been the 77th US Army Band from Fort Sill. I could have stayed for country music and fireworks, but the drive home loomed ahead.
But he is a former president. So I think that’s why I drove 240 miles today. Because in the United States of America, you can hear a former president speak. In a monarchy, there are no former kings, and in a dictatorship there are no former dictators. Every four or eight years we simply hand power to another person without civil war or executions or “disappearances.” A former president goes back to private life and does private things. Presidents Clinton and Carter have tried to leverage their post-presidency appeal with interesting results in one case and Nobel Prize-winning results in another. Others have simply gone into quiet retirement–Nixon, Ford, Reagan–for personal (or not so personal) reasons. One likes to jump out of airplanes on his birthday (Bush, Sr.).
But the beauty is that, like George Washington, they leave power behind, and no one has to look over their shoulder wondering if a former president is going to try to come back using elements of the government that have remained loyal. And no former president has to look over his shoulder for a government assassin. And I, a person who, admittedly, doesn’t really see eye-to-eye with much about his administration, can go hear the man speak without fear of retribution (except funny looks from people who don’t understand why I would want to go hear the man speak).
So in my own (admittedly, strange) way, it was a very interesting and unique way to observe Independence Day. There have only been six American presidents during my life, and now I’ve been able to hear two of them speak live (I’ll never get to 100% on that score, since I missed Reagan). One (Clinton) was at a giant stadium with 50,000 or so people who just wanted him to finish so they could get their diplomas. And today, I think most of those people were glad to see the former president. Some of that is politics, and some of it is culture. I would like to think that any former president would get a similar response in this part of the world. Perhaps that is naive. Perhaps it’s part of what makes our country a good place–not perfect, but a fair deal better than a lot of other places.