Thank God for the Coast Guard. Those boys were in New Orleans in no time, sun-up the first Monday morning, following the eye of the hurricane with an eye to saving people’s lives. Those fellows did not blink.
Oh, you can knock Chertoff, but you can’t knock the Coast Guard, who were giving the shirts off their backs to help folks. You can knock Landrieu, but you can’t knock the Coast Guard, who were landing on roofs to pick people up. You can knock Nagin, but you can’t knock the Coast Guard, who were busting their noggins to help in any way possible. You can knock the Parish leaders, but you can’t knock the Coast Guard, who were ensuring that survivors did not perish. You can knock Bush, but you can’t knock the Coast Guard, who worked every waking moment to help, even when they were bushed. And you can knock FEMA, but you can’t knock the Coast Guard, who gave from their heart, seeking neither FAME nor fortune.
Which takes me back to a time in the late 1980s, when I was privileged to work closely with one of the great American philanthropists, Morris Esformes of Chicago. (A great deal of my scholarship and skills was acquired during the more than two years that I was supported by a talent-development grant from his foundation.) During that time, he was called in for an audit by the IRS. The agent in charge immediately attacked him with this question: “According to your return, you made two million dollars last year and gave away one million to charity. Why would you give away half the money you worked for?”
Morrie explained to the agent that he was looking at it the wrong way. “The real question is: why would I bother trying to make a second million when I could live very nicely on the first? The answer is that my entire motivation in pushing myself to produce that second million was to be able to support the individuals and institutions that strengthen this country and the Jewish People.”
This is the very approach that needs to be applied to the Coast Guard. We are so used to reporting on politicians that we have grown cynical. Every time we see someone perform some act of assistance to another, we immediately start figuring which votes he was looking to buy. By always looking for the angles we are blinded from seeing the angels. These young men joined the service not to build self-esteem or get college grants; they did it to contribute to the welfare of our nation and society.
Their early image of heroism, broadcast widely, has served to inspire the munificence of many. Volunteers have streamed from many surrounding states, mostly from Florida, perennial target of torrent and gust. Hearts have opened, hands have opened, wallets have opened, and through them the beautiful flower of a nation’s goodness has begun to open shyly toward the sun.
Feuds have been set aside so that food can be set aside. A flood of bottled water has been offered. Cash donations are reaching their high-water mark. People are taking vacation time to go and help people vacate. And the collective body of taxpayers is happy for the government to pump our levies into machinery that will enable them to pump the levees. We accept the changes necessary to secure rescue.
No more “what have you done for me lately?” No more “what’s in it for me?” The question now goes the other way: “what can I do for you?” Put all truisms away and make way for the season of altruism. But can it long endure? Can we the people continue governing our behavior for the people?
I think I can answer that question with some confidence. The boys of the Coast Guard have shown us the way. It’s like the time that Sammy Davis Jr. was driving with Joey Bishop in the passenger seat and an officer pulled them over for doing eighty in a 60 mph zone. The cop chastised Sammy for not keeping his eye on the speedometer. At that point, Joey cut in. “The man only has one eye. Do you want him to watch the road or the speedometer?”
When we try to keep one eye on the humanitarian situation and one eye on the political fallout, we wind up with one blind eye and one greedy eye. We need to use only the one eye, the eye that looks out but not in, that seeks and sees the need of the other. As long as we are the pupils of that eye, the eye of Katrina will lose its lash.
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