Who’s a Real American?

Here’s a question that I could answer myself if I wasn’t so busy — when is the last time we elected a President who did not have two native born parents? EDIT: The result of 10 minutes on Wikipedia while eating a sandwich for lunch — Woodrow Wilson’s mother was born in Scotland. I think that’s the most recent.

I have a lot in common with Barack Obama — really! We’re both Chicago lawyers. We’re both in our late 40’s — I’m almost exactly a year older than he is. We’re both married to beautiful, well-educated, talented women, and we both have two school-aged children. And both of our fathers were non-natives of the United States, who came to the U.S. to attend a university, and met our mothers while in this country.

That is where the resemblance ends, however. His father left his mother, and went back to his native country; mine stayed, became a U.S. citizen, and was married to my mother until the day he died. While he was living in Indonesia, I was living in a middle class Midwestern suburb. Also: He is smarter, more ambitious, more energetic, more thoughtful, more likable than I am. I, at least, am better looking.

This is a long way of saying that it shouldn’t be surprising that Sen. Obama’s story appealed to me immediately, and seemed to me to be quintessentially American. But if you live in central Ohio or western Pennsylvania, if your family and the families of your neighbors have all been here for many generations, maybe not so much. Maybe the poor immigrant, or son of an immigrant, who makes good doesn’t have the same resonance for you.

In today’s NYT, Stanley Fish writes about his immigrant father, Max the Plumber, who escaped the Antisemitism of 1920’s Poland (as did my father’s family), came to the United States, worked hard, and became a successful businessman. And not surprisingly, this seems to me to be a quintessentially American story, too.

I would have voted for the Democratic candidate for President no matter who he or she was, and no matter whom the Republicans had nominated to run for President, and no matter who that nominee had chosen as his running mate. But it will give me some pleasure to vote for another Chicago lawyer, another member of my generation, and another son of a non-native American. And it will give me a great deal of pleasure to vote against candidates who have campaigned on the notion that some parts of the country — the ones that are mostly white, mostly conservative, mostly Christian, and mostly native born — are more American than the big cities in which so many immigrants have found refuge and opportunity, and that some American citizens are more American than others.


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