From the Backlog File: Dream Ticket

Marie is always reminding me to hang onto the stuff I’ve written and published.  I’m a lousy filer and record keeper, and it’s true that, if I don’t take care of it, these articles might disappear forever, the eternal life of words on the internet notwithstanding.

So here’s a favorite.  It appeared in the Post-Gazette during the 2008 election campaign.  Its relevance is, of course, diminished, but only a little.  It was an article that had more to do with my kids than it did any issue in the election, so you might still enjoy it.  Whether you do or you don’t, at least I know where to find it now!

Sunday Forum: Dream ticket

July 13, 2008 12:00 am

Adlai Stevenson once famously joked, “In America, any boy may become president, and I suppose that’s just one of the risks he takes.”


Matt Weiss , a history teacher at Shadyside Academy Senior School, lives in Edgewood (ultimattfrisbee@hotmail.com).

This year’s unprecedented contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has widened the scope of Stevenson’s remark. The pointed attacks and lingering hurt feelings of the primary season notwithstanding, one thing everyone, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama supporter, Republican or Democrat, seems to agree on is that this year’s campaign has proved that any American child, regardless of race or sex, can aspire to be president.

That’s good news for parents, and my 8-year-old daughter Maya seems eager to make me First Dad some day. More than a year ago, when Mrs. Clinton announced her candidacy, Maya asked me if there had ever been a female president. I told her there hadn’t and she replied, “Well, then I hope Hillary loses. I want to be the first.”

More recently, when I asked if she still might like to be president she said, “I’m workin’ on it.” She doesn’t lack for confidence.

Now, of course I’m biased, but I think my son, Devendra, might have the right stuff, too. He’s only four and not yet 40 pounds, but he has a quick wit, a winning smile and, believe me, more than enough energy for a long campaign. Together, they’d be my dream ticket.

But if an Obama-Clinton ticket is unlikely, a Maya-Dev ticket is impossible, and not just because they’re from the same state (oh, and still in grade school). Maya was born here in Pittsburgh, but Dev was adopted from Nepal where he was born in 2003. The Constitution requires the president to be native-born, so Dev can never be our chief executive. When Adlai Stevenson quipped about any boy becoming president, he wasn’t thinking of boys like Dev.

The constitutional prohibition against foreign-born presidents is the one exception to full citizenship enjoyed by naturalized Americans. A naturalized American can be a senator, like Mexican-born Mel Martinez of Florida, or a representative, like Japanese-born Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. A naturalized American can also be a governor, like Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, or the governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Three current Cabinet members, Elaine Chao, Carlos Gutierrez and John Negroponte, were born abroad, as were two U.S. secretaries of state, Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger. Felix Frankfurter, one of our country’s greatest Supreme Court justices, was born in Austria.

We trust our naturalized fellow citizens to make our laws, interpret our Constitution and represent our interests in sensitive negotiations with foreign powers. So why can’t a naturalized citizen aspire to the presidency?

The prohibition can be found in Article II, Section 5 of the Constitution. It was included with little discussion or dissent and was based on the assumption that a foreign commander-in-chief might have divided loyalties in case of war, or that our young government might be vulnerable to subterfuge and interference from foreign kings.

As to divided loyalties, I suppose anything is possible, but it doesn’t square with my experience, or with history. I have found that the most passionate and patriotic Americans often are the ones who came here from someplace else.

My grandfather, a Russian Jew who arrived in the United States at the age of 16 back in 1922, never lost his thick accent, didn’t learn to write in English (though he read it perfectly) and was not given to emotional displays, but if you got him talking about his gratitude to his adopted country, that heavily accented voice would thicken and his eyes would fill with tears. During World War II, some Japanese Americans, who had been imprisoned on the presumption of their divided loyalties, served in Europe in the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, the most highly decorated combat unit in our history.

Besides, native-born Americans can have divided loyalties, too. Some Irish Americans who could trace their roots in the United States as far back as the mid-1800s routinely sent clandestine arms money to the IRA in violation of U.S. law during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, and many of my fellow Jews feel a strong pull to Israel that guides their thinking and their votes.

Finally, we don’t need the Constitution to protect us from an insufficiently loyal president; the election process is remorselessly transparent. The voters would have all the information they needed to decide if they trusted a foreign-born American to lead them.

But I doubt that any of this will have much effect on Dev. Though he sleeps with a Nepali flag above his bed and someday will visit the country of his birth, he’s a Yankee Doodle, do or die. The other day, he spontaneously recited the Pledge of Allegiance as we played on the rug. He learned it at preschool, where he says it every day with his classmates, some white, some black, some Hispanic, some Asian, all American.

Of course, I know neither of my kids is likely ever to be president, even if the Constitution allowed it. And I’m not sure I’d really want it for either of them. It’s an impossible job, and no matter how well you do it, about half the country will probably hate you.

But the point is that every child should be able to dream of becoming president. Dreaming big is a worthy habit, and childhood presidential dreams remind us that the president is a citizen just like the rest of us. They tell us that we all share in the responsibility of governing this democracy.

There is nothing more American than being able to look into the eyes of one’s child and say, “You can be anything you want to be.” That’s what many Americans, of all races and ethnicities, are saying to their sons and daughters this election season. Someday, I’d like to be able to say the same thing to both of mine.

First Published July 13, 2008 12:00 am

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