Even as we recognize the achievements of our generation and take pride in the remarkable advancements in business, science and technology, civil rights, space exploration, and the many medical advances that have marked our progress, there is another side to the story, a side that history will not ignore, and one which has created as grave a challenge to our nation as Americans have faced in many years.
Over the last 50 years the United States has participated in a series of foreign wars and diplomatic decisions that have resulted in changes to our culture in significant ways; we have witnessed a decline of our educational system to the point that parents worry about the ability of their children to compete in a modern world, or even to find work in their home state; we have watched as local business and manufacturing concerns have left for other states or foreign countries; tax policies have led to national, state and local debt of staggering proportions. All these things, and a host of other social, economic and political problems, have coalesced to create a loss of faith in government and those who manage it. This has generated apathy, an attitude of surrender to fate that is unparalleled in our lifetime.
Having said these things, it is not my intention to have you leave here today with a feeling of despair about our future. While we face formidable challenges, it is also true that we are Americans. We are children of “The Greatest Generation”; we are all descendants of that remarkable group of people who conceived and built this nation. We are the inheritors of a tradition that in only two and a quarter centuries of world history has been widely recognized as the “light of the world.” The question before us is this: Do we still have what it takes to control our destiny, or are we going to step back and allow others to determine it for us?
For the past 10 years, as this organization has evolved, it has been my privilege to meet and come to know a very special group of Rhode Islanders, many of whom are in this room this morning. That experience has left me with the conviction that we have in this state one of the most priceless assets existing anywhere – an assemblage of well educated, broadly experienced men and women, many of them retired or in their later years, who know what America was intended to be. They understand its challenges; they still possess the special capabilities required to guarantee its future. In my view, you who are here today represent the critically important “special interest” that must, and I repeat must, not retire from active duty. You – and your colleagues – still have it within your power to play a major role in creating and sustaining the force required to defeat the apathy that has allowed us to backslide as a state and nation.
It is instructive to take a moment to look around this room. What do you see? I see love of country. I see love of family. I see love of accomplishment. I see educated, experienced, thoughtful people who have proved that they can overcome a challenge.
What I don’t see is many faces under 40 years of age. Why? Where are they and what are they thinking? This is their country; what does the future hold for them? We need them; they need to be involved!
You remain a vital factor in realizing the hope of America. The only thing we need to complete the picture is to see that intense fire in the eye that says to all around you: Come with me or get out of the way!
I want to draw your attention to another picture.
This is the well known artistic representation of George Washington, standing on the bow of a small boat about to cross the Delaware River on a bitter cold Christmas Eve in 1776. Behind him is a small band of ill-fed, ill-clothed soldiers, fresh from a series of depressing defeats, about to leave the safety of the western shore of the Delaware to meet the British-paid Hessian mercenaries in Trenton. Think what must have been going through their minds: “If we lose, we will surely die; if we win and survive, the war goes on, our suffering continues, and we may still die.”
Now place yourself on that shoreline, on that night. Ask yourself: Am I going to step into that boat, or am I going to step aside and wait to hear the result?
Fortunately, today ours is a different, though no less critical, challenge.
Ours is the challenge to build an educated, thoughtful, involved citizen-taxpayer organization that can make a positive contribution to the solution of the problems of this state. In order to do that, however, we must mount a strong campaign to build a membership that will project a voice that will be heard in every town or city council, and in the State House. We need your sons, daughters and grandchildren to help us as we move forward to establish meetings across the state, as we reach out to your neighbors and friends to gain their membership. We need your ideas, your enthusiasm, and your help, and, yes, we need the financial support that will sustain and strengthen our efforts. I ask you now to join with us in spreading the word. Take it to your friends and neighbors. Urge them to do as you have done, become an active member of the RI Taxpayers.
Our communities, our state and our nation stand before us in need of the best that each of us can bring to the solution of our common problems. As we leave this room this morning, remember that when our future is on the line, the choice is yours: Will you step into the boat? Or will you leave it to others to face the challenge?
Thank you all for coming and may God Bless America.
Harry Staley is chairman of the Rhode Island Taxpayers organization. He made these remarks at the conclusion of the group’s annual meeting May 11.