Ruth Bass: 'When they go low, we go high' an unforgettable line


RICHMOND — "When they go low, we go high."

That could be something for the United States to reach for. It was just one of the memorable phrases in first lady Michelle Obama's riveting speech to the Democratic National Convention last week.

She delivered it not far from the spot where tourists flock to see the Liberty Bell, one of our most treasured artifacts. Used for years to summon lawmakers to their work, the bell did not receive its official name until the mid-19th century, when abolitionists started calling it the Liberty Bell during their anti-slavery efforts.

Interesting that Michelle Obama included in her speech that she was aware that she and her husband and two daughters have lived for 7 ½ years in a house built by slaves. Interesting also that a large faction in the United States has for those same 7 ½ years been unable to come to grips with the fact that the first family is black.

And yet, in 2016, after the usual ups and downs of presidential approval ratings, Barack Obama's rating has risen above 50 percent. Does that mean he's doing the right things, or is it a reflection of the contrast between the elegant grace with which the Obamas conduct their lives and the vulgarity, name-calling and rudeness that bombard us from the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Probably both things are true. The present first family does go high when others go low. Why that should generate more low stuff is not a good commentary on the psyche of a large group of Americans. It is true, however, that when a person keeps lowering his voice during a hot argument, the opponent tends to get louder and louder — and then pause, noticing.

Perhaps Barack Obama has been too graceful. My siblings and I grew up in a house where bragging was considered quite obnoxious, and maybe he was, too. In any case, he's certainly refrained from telling us every day that he won, he won, he won.

And he hasn't kept telling us that we were pulled out of recession during the early days of his presidency, that 20 million of us can now go to a doctor because we have insurance, that the unemployment rate is down to 5 percent (Mitt Romney, if elected, promised to get it down to 6 by the end of 2016).

Obama has, admittedly, bragged now and then about the 10 million private sector jobs created since he became president. But even when accused of not being hawkish enough, he doesn't feel moved to remind us every Monday that he took out Bin Laden and that, in fact, American bombers and drones are constantly on missions of destruction.

He had the courage to open access to Cuba, an act comparable to Republican Richard Nixon knocking down the barriers to China decades earlier. He also persuaded the world to sign agreements on climate control and on a 15-year ban of war-related nuclear development in Iran.

Predictably, the opposition says there's nothing wrong with the climate so nothing need be done and the Iranian agreement will all be down the drain after the 15 years. The president has, in terms of many issues, realized that it's better to do something than to sit on your hands in the Map Room and do nothing.

Equal rights for our minorities remain a work in progress. But with a little nudge from Joe Biden, Barack Obama saw the light on the issue of gay marriage and had already acted to end discrimination against gays in the military and in society in general.

Yep, it's true: He's neither perfect, nor omnipotent. Too many workers have not had a raise in too long; no one has been able to stop the massacres; a trickle (it actually is down to a trickle, even though Barack Obama has not built a wall) of immigrants still make their desperate way across the border; and we are still allowing any American, rational or lunatic or just plain foolish, to buy a weapon of mass destruction.

Sen. Corey Booker urged last week that we "move beyond tolerance" to something more positive. You don't have to agree with what the Obamas think and/or do, but Booker is right. Tolerating and "meaning well" insult the recipient and don't cool the political pit that bubbles with hate.

One of the missing ingredients in that dark hole is facts. By the way, U.S. crime rates are down, not up. It's time to go high and stop trashing the president.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Eagle. Her website is The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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