We Gather Together–Apart

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Or Happy Day After Thanksgiving, if you are seeing this on Friday)

Today’s papers are filled with solemn holiday columns commenting on the sadness and irony we are feeling on this holiday during the time of the pandemic. But also, as E.J. Dionne observes, quoting a friend’ recent statement, “I work from home, which means that I have a job and a place to live.”

For starters, that’s a lot to be thankful for. He ends with Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation in the midst of the Civil War, urging citizens to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it.”  Which is pretty much the essence of what President-Elect Joe Biden said in his Thanksgiving eve remarks this year, urging Americans to fight the coronavirus, and not each other.

“Other than a formal proclamation issued by the White House press office,” the Washington Post reported, President “Trump did not express sympathy for the dead or offer guidance to Americans conflicted about how to celebrate Thanksgiving safely but unleashed a steady stream of grievances, twice scream-tweeting: ‘RIGGED ELECTION!’”

The contrast couldn’t have been clearer, between the whining, ranting outgoing president and the embattled Civil War leader and the man about to become this country’s 46th POTUS.

For me, the contrast brought me back to Thanksgiving 1972, a holiday I covered for the Washington Post with a story headlined “Thanksgiving Day. A Time of Worship.”  Looking at that yellowed clipping (Yes, I still have my clips! Millennials: look it up.”), I was struck by the then president’s message.

The chief executive was Richard Nixon.  Thanksgiving that year came just five months after the infamous Watergate break-in, which would ultimately lead to the only presidential resignation in U.S. history, in August 1974.  It is worth recalled that Nixon did not rant and rave after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the release of White House tapes implicating him in the coverup. After a visit from some of his Republican congressional colleagues, he delivered a brief address, climbed aboard Marine One, the White House helicopter, and waved goodbye.

But that was later. Despite the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters (and my three-part series on politics and commercialism in plans for the 1976 bicentennial published in August, causing barely a ripple), Nixon in November had just won a landslide victory over hapless Democratic Sen. George McGovern. The election results gave rise to the bumper sticker that said “Don’t Blame Me. I’m from Massachusetts,” the only state he’d won.

So, by Thanksgiving, Nixon had a lot to be thankful for.  The country was still at war in Vietnam, but Nixon had promised (again) to bring our troops home. Nixon had opened the door to China. Many of his domestic policies, apart from hie personal demons that caused him to commit political crimes, look good in retrospect: Creating the EPA, affirmative action, and more.

So, Nixon’s Thanksgiving Day message, I reported, was sanguine. It was simply a day for Americans “to assemble in homes and places of worship… to join in offering gratitude for the countless blessings our people enjoy…” Nixon called on all Americans “to embrace the elderly and less fortunate as special celebrants in the day’s events.” Sounds very timely to me, but not something you will hear from the current president known for his lack of empathy.

Then, I reported  that “in what is believed to be the oldest continuous ecumenical service here, more than 300 worshippers from six churches and two synagogues gathered at the Asbury United Methodist Church, 11th and K Streets NW, to do exactly that.” There were remarks by ministers from different congregations, and the assembled sang Hymn No. 59, “We Gather Together.”

Asbury, founded as a black church in 1836, continues to thrive in the same location, having survived demographic and physical changes that have transformed Washington’s downtown. Only this year, for the first time, there will be no live in-person Thanksgiving, no gathering together.

Timona Ross, the church’s administrative assistant, has no memory of that long-ago service; she was a year old and living in New Mexico. But the spirit of that time endures, even in the pandemic.  A Thanksgiving Eve musical was streamed online. “Things are different now,” she said, “so we have to gather together online.”

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