Tiananmen Square Changed My Life

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan.

Image via Wikipedia

Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, my role model growing up, has written about four-foot Americans. While other pundits yammered on about adult reactions to President Obama’s inauguration, Noonan pondered what it meant to America’s children. As a former four-foot American, whose life was shaped by presidential forces, I think Noonan’s focus was the right one.

When I march into Harvard Yard on June 4th, I will complete a journey, 20 years to the day, between when I started my civic engagement and complete my formal government training.

My whole life changed on June 4, 1989. I was 10 years-old. My family was visiting Washington, DC, for the Bat-Mitzvah of our cousin, Robyn. In between the service and party, we were in our hotel room. We turned on the television and saw a news report about Tiananmen Square. Students had been protesting peacefully for democracy. The Chinese government responded by attacking them with tanks and guns. Seeing how horrified I was, my father suggested that I write to the president. So, I did.

How could I not be upset? After all, I was a child of the Reagan Revolution. Even as a 10 year old, I had a few ideas about what government should mean.

Back in 1984, I was a novice. My father explained to me that President Reagan was a good man, who kept us safe. He seemed like a nice man on TV, and he was the closest thing I knew to a grandfather. So, when we had our in-school elections that fall, I voted for Reagan. You knew Reagan would beat Mondale in a landslide that year, when he won my Jewish day school overwhelmingly.

My sister, Nina, and I accompanied our parents to vote that same day. They took us with them into the blue voting booths, letting us pull the red levers. They told us that voting was important.

In 1986, like American children everywhere, my classmates and I learned about NASA’s space program and Christa McAuliffe, the friendly teacher-turned-astronaut. Seventy-three seconds turned possibility into peril. All seven astronauts died, and we became a nation of mourners, as we watched the Challenger explode live on television.

That night President Reagan addressed the nation. Most people remember the President’s poetic closing, “slipping the surly bonds of earth” and “touching the face of G-d.” What I remember is Reagan’s speaking directly to America’s children, knowing how scary and incomprehensible the whole situation was for us. In a moment of national tragedy, he remembered and consoled us.

This was my experience with government. This was my normal. On June 4, 1989, I realized that in some places, there was no such normal.

I believe that democracy is the best form of government. I believe that government has a responsibility to communicate with the public, to encourage free speech and the freedom of assembly. I believe a legitimate government never murders its own students.  And when I march out of Johnston Gate on June 4th, 2009, I intend to carry those values with me.

(Speech delivered March 20, 2009 at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government)

One Response to “Tiananmen Square Changed My Life”
  1. sqeptiq says:

    “I believe a legitimate government never murders its own students.” Sadly, when the Ohio National Guard massacred students at Kent State, most Americans approved.

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