The expression “the American Dream” was first popularized nearly a century ago by a successful businessman and historian named James Truslow Adams. In his book, The Epic of America, Adams defined the dream as a land where “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”
These days, talk of the dream conjures up imagery more reflective of the second half of Truslow’s sentence; the proverbial rags-to-riches story where the never-say-die individual rises up the economic ladder through sheer ingenuity and hard work. And if we’re talking about an American immigrant — who’s achieved great wealth and then generously given back — the story becomes even more romantic.
It’s easy to find high profile examples of this kind of success in our country. And notwithstanding the fact that 30 percent of Americans told Gallup in 2019 that they don’t view the dream as attainable — a full 70 percent said that they do still consider it within their grasp.
The same poll offered a similar question with a more concrete definition of achieving the dream, asking folks if they believed that “it is very or somewhat likely that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents did. Sixty percent of respondents agreed.
The reasons why such a substantial proportion of our country are pessimistic on these questions are varied and the stuff of political debate. Many believe that voters’ level of confidence about their economic futures helped Donald Trump get elected three years ago. Just as many think that this will be a key as to whether he holds the job in 2020.
James Carville’s mantra-turned-cliche from three decades ago can still be heard daily on cable channels: “it’s the economy, stupid.” But the sworn testimony that Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman gave to Congress this week about President Trump’s words and actions provide a stark reminder that the “American Dream” can come in many shapes and sizes.
Vindman’s life story actually personifies the attainment of the dream, and it’s nothing to do with accumulating wealth or fame. His journey is one of service and integrity — yet you might not know it if you’d only heard the public attacks on his character in the 24 hours following his sworn testimony. More on the haters in a minute.
The early events in Vindman’s life read like classic American fiction. Their father and grandmother were Jewish refugees who fled from Ukraine in the 1970’s when the boys were just three years old. The family left with little more than the clothes on their back and less than a thousand bucks — hoping to ultimately make it to the U.S. and build a better future.
Twenty years later, Vindman graduated from the State University of New York at Binghamton and earned a master’s degree from Harvard. He made Lt. Colonel in the Army and served in tours overseas in Germany, South Korea and a combat mission in Iraq. In 2003, Vindman was severely wounded by a roadside IED, for which his country would award him the Purple Heart.
Vindman became an expert on Russian affairs and served in U.S. embassies in Moscow and Kiev. His experience and abilities led to more opportunities, including his current service on the White House National Security Council.
In his opening statement in front of the three House committees that are holding hearings to investigate the president’s actions and interactions with Ukraine, Lt. Colonel Vindman first summarized his own experience in America:
“Upon arriving in New York City in 1979, my father worked multiple jobs to support us, all the while learning English at night. He stressed to us the importance of fully integrating into our adopted country. For many years, life was quite difficult. In spite of our challenging beginnings, my family worked to build its own American dream. I have a deep appreciation for American values and ideals, and the power of freedom. I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics.”
Vindman testified for several hours, and, like others who have recounted facts and events relevant to the House impeachment inquiry, he described actions taken and words spoken by the president that did not paint a flattering picture. Boiling it down at one point, Vindman said:
“I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine.”
For this statement and others during his full testimony, Vindman was pilloried by conservative voices on the right. The president called him a “Never-Trumper,” while no evidence exists to actually back up the accusation.
On the Fox Follies, a former lawyer in the George W. White House, Jon Yoo, likened Vindman’s answers under oath “espionage.”
Wisconsin Trump-puppet Sean Duffy resigned his seat in Congress on September 23. One month later, as a paid “contributor” on CNN, Duffy ascribed disloyal motives to the Lieutenant Colonel’s assertions by suggesting:
“It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense, I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy.”
Fox polemicist Laura Ingraham served up her own brand of nonsense, cackling through the following thought process:
“Here we have a U.S. national security official, who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House apparently against the president’s interest and usually, they spoke in English. Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on this story?”
What’s interesting is just how preposterous these suggestions really are coming from fully grown adults.
It reminded me of that great fictional thriller from 1987, No Way Out, where the powerful Defense Secretary (Gene Hackman) and his sycophantic aide (Will Patton) set up a conspiracy to protect the murder Hackman has committed. They frame a U.S. Navy hero as the fall guy, explaining to him and everyone else that there’s a search on for “Yuri” — a phantom spy that conspiracists have long theorized had been sent from Russia at a young age to be groomed to step in at the just the right moment to carry out some act of vital national security for his homeland.
Could Lt. Colonel Vindman be “Yuri” after 40 years of striving and achieving in top security posts that have made our country safer? It’s a rhetorical question, of course.
He said it right there under oath: “my family worked to build its own American dream… I am a patriot, and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend OUR country, irrespective of party or politics.”
It’s hard to argue he’s not a patriot. It’s equally hard to make the case that he’s not a hero.
But here’s the bigger point in this sad saga of TV heads crossing the line of decency to defend the most indecent of men: They have zero moral authority on the issue — and if they looked closely in the mirror for just a minute without commentating — they’d realize that it is because of Americans like Alexander Vindman that they have the luxury of getting paid lots of money to squawk pure nonsense.
We do not know if and when there’ll be a bottom to the kind of shameless attempts at shaming good people we’ve been hearing from Trump-supporters who have big platforms. But we the people, regardless of political stripe, can choose to think for ourselves. Each one of us can decide to keep in mind that it is the sacrifice and service of people like Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman that keeps even the prospect of the American Dream alive and kicking for the rest of us.