Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) A little less pluribus, and a little more unum

Posted on September 24, 2007

A lot is being said about whether Ken Burns included enough Latinos in his new television series on World War II. This is just one more reminder that pluribus comes easy, but unum is hard. It would be easier if “E Pluribus Unum,” the national motto displayed above the presiding officer’s desk, were reversed and became “many from one” instead of “one from many.” Burns’ epic series on “The War” began last night on public television. It promises to stick in our collective memory as only a few television events have -- the Roots series, Burns’ Civil War series, and Superbowls. In fact, our country is so splintered these days, and so enthralled with our diversity, that not very much becomes collective memory as did for example, McGuffey’s Reader in the nineteenth century or the three network newscasts of the mid-twentieth century. This diminution of our common core of beliefs and experiences is our fundamental challenge – because forging unity from our magnificent diversity is America’s greatest achievement and has created our capacity for other achievements. Reflecting on his six years of work on the series, Burns recently said that Americans were more united during World War II and its aftermath than at any other time. It was no coincidence that during this era the “greatest generation” also accomplished the most: welcoming new citizens based upon beliefs instead of race, building overwhelming military power and the best universities, and producing nearly one-third of the world’s wealth for just five percent of the world’s people. Quoting the late Arthur Schlesinger’s book, “The Disuniting of America,” Burns said that America today could use a “little less pluribus and a little more unum.” Following the war, liberals like Schlesinger, Albert Shanker and Hubert Humphrey were vigorous apostles of America’s common purpose. Their Fourth of July speeches were as effusive as anybody’s. Today the left disdains and the right seems to have forgotten the importance of unum. Which means we are abandoning our greatest achievement. We see this in our work in the Senate. There is no constituency for consensus, only for division, and many of those who work hardest for consensus are retiring or near the end of their careers here. A good example is the debate on Iraq, a war that unlike World War II, divides instead of unites us. The President is conducting the war the way he wants to, not recognizing that persuading at least half the people he is right is the only way he can sustain a long term U. S. presence in Iraq. The Democratic majority is working hard for a perceived political advantage, not recognizing that most voters would prefer that we work together when Americans are fighting and dying. Both sides deserve an incomplete on their report cards. A unified country would speak with one voice on where we go from here in Iraq. Because our troops deserve to hear it. Because the enemy needs to hear it. Because one political party does not go to war, our country does. And finally, because the United States Senate looks downright ridiculous lecturing Baghdad about being in a political stalemate when we can’t get out of one ourselves. We still have an opportunity to speak with one voice on Iraq. Seventy-eight of us in the House and Senate—thirty-five Democrats and forty-three Republicans—have cosponsored legislation making the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommendations the policy of our government. It is a consensus most members, I believe, agree with. It is sitting there staring us in the face, waiting for us to adopt it and the President to sign it. At West Point a few weeks ago, thirty cadets told Ken Burns they had watched his Civil War Series with their parents and decided then to attend West Point. We can only hope Burns’ new series can have as much impact and remind us of that time when Americans pulled together. And remind us that today we could use a little less pluribus and a little more unum.