Anticipating the start of a new year

December 31, 2013 

Pretty much every New Year calls to mind Charles Dickens’ famous opening line from “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The key is not just to reflect on setbacks and sadnesses, but also to turn one’s thoughts to the future with fingers crossed, to build hopes as one would a fire as real winter sets in.

As 2013 wound to a close, the stock market was booming, based on real and optimistic jobs information. The unemployment rate in North Carolina and the nation had dropped. The nation was pulling itself from foreign wars, and President Obama had improved the country’s standing overseas.

The automobile industry was roaring back. The Affordable Care Act, after a troubling start, had signed up a million people as the new year began, with forecasts for another million in pretty short order.

The president’s most virulent and unrelenting critics in the congressional tea party hadn’t backed off of their wildly outrageous claims, but even some Republicans had had enough, with House Speaker John Boehner exclaiming in frustration: “Are you kidding me?”

Yes, logs on the fire.

Too many Americans were still unemployed or under-employed. And many, in the wake of the recovery from a long recession, had diminished or virtually lost their savings. The president was re-elected but signs of true healing in Washington were hard to find. Tensions with Russia called to mind in some ways the old Cold War.

The best of times and the worst of times.

Alas, North Carolina’s politics last year were more turbulent than in Washington.

Republicans, flush with the power of holding the governorship and both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in over 100 years, proceeded to push through a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, restrictive voting rights laws, cuts to public education, tax breaks for the wealthy and laws curbing the regulation of business and the environment.

Their governor, Pat McCrory, seemed at times overwhelmed after multiple terms as mayor of Charlotte, where he basically was the passive agent of the business community. State government was different; it was much tougher. At year’s end, McCrory was still struggling to forge a leadership role for himself.

And his Department of Health and Human Services, which deals with Medicaid and a host of other needed services, seemed a monument to dysfunction.

The state was roundly criticized on the national stage as having surrendered its leadership role in the “New South” in favor of returning to the 1950s. Progressive governors such as Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford and later, Jim Hunt, seemed a distant memory, as did their ideas.

Business leaders were privately worried that the damage done to the state’s image would manifest itself in lost opportunities to recruit new business, and indeed McCrory’s breathless promises of job creation and economic recovery seemed more rhetoric than reality.

But as the new year begins, citizens in North Carolina and nationally hang on, as they always do, to hope. The wood’s cut. The fatwood is in the fireplace.

This nation and North Carolina, after all, have weathered a host of challenges far greater than political division spurred on by the fringes. America has overcome war and Depression and domestic turbulence over civil rights and Vietnam – all seemed at times a threat to split the country into pieces.

The people, though sometimes manipulated by political leaders seemingly more interested in self-interest than in the national interest, have a way of bringing those leaders to Earth.

The conservative, economically turbulent years under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were followed by the optimistic peace and prosperity of Bill Clinton. George Bush, who presided over questionable wars and whose economic policies brought the country to the brink of economic catastrophe, was replaced by the nation’s first black president, something that seemed improbable not that long ago.

So the turmoils of 2013 will pass, just as surely as they have in previous, much worse years.

• For even in the worst of times, there is hope. And today we hope.

• For good health next year for the infirm.

• For peace and calm around this troubled but resilient world.

• For happiness and smiles in children who have been tossed by worry.

• For understanding between and among the races.

• For work for all those who have been trying so hard to find jobs.

• For an end to hunger and cold afflicting those in our own community.

“The future,” Eleanor Roosevelt said, “belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” Some would call her naive. Others would say quite the opposite, that she helped the nation face its hardest times and saw it realize some of those dreams.

That can happen again, in the nation and at home. No matter what our political differences or the sometimes hopeless confrontations that appear to hold our country back, this is a country and a state where dreams have been frustrated but never have died.

So throw another log on the fire.

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