"Whatever else you do today," Joe Diaz pronounced, striking his big fist into an equally large palm, "don’t call this ‘the Fourth of July.’ We’re not celebrating a date on the calendar."
Abriana Diaz-Estrada rolled her eyes and patted her father on the hand.
"Have a little faith, Pop. I know it’s Independence Day."
When she walked into the kitchen, she wasn’t surprised to find her father finishing what looked to have been a large bowl of oatmeal. He was already showered, shaved, and dressed for the day. Neat as always, smelling of bay rum in his dark three-piece suit, his walking stick reclining against the table. But his eyes bore the inevitable baggage of age, and were ringed with every stress-filled waking hour of the past 81 years.
"I hope you’re getting enough sleep, Pop."
"I’ll sleep when I’m dead," he snapped lightly. "I was up at five- saw the sunrise over the Washington Monument. Every bit as glorious as I remember it."
Except for a couple days the previous January, when he was invited back for the inauguration, it had been more than a decade since Joe Diaz spent time in the capital. This week, he’d been telling anyone who would listen that he was in town to take his "victory lap."
"Do you have time to eat something?" he asked, beginning an old refrain. "You look a little thin to me. You have to keep your energy up, Abri."
"I had a breakfast meeting. I’m good," she responded, as always. "You ready to go?"
"Born ready." He pushed back from the table. "C’mon, we have an appointment to keep."
Joe Diaz always had a love-hate relationship with Washington, D.C. When he was serving his four terms as a congressman representing Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, he often joked that the city "was never more beautiful than when glimpsed from the rearview mirror." While it was true that he preferred to be back home, working in the district, Joe actually came to admire Washington, and most of what it represented. He found much of its landscape breathtaking, relished its unique culture, treasured its history, and was frequently inspired by the people he worked with and met there.
Like all company towns, the business of Washington could sometimes be oppressive. When that happened, Joe would simply make it a priority to take his own advice, view it all in reverse from the Beltway, and make his way back home across fields once farm-scarred and war-torn. Today, however, he wanted to soak in as much of the capital as possible.
"There were a lot of people who said this day would never come, Abri," Joe said, just the hint of a prideful quiver in his voice, as their car cruised down Massachusetts Avenue. "I remember reading this column in the New York Times when I was still a teenager, where this woman predicted America would be in ruins by now."
Abriana knew this story too. "Was that before or after the Chinese bought the Times, Pop?"
"Before. I can’t remember the columnist’s name, but she was one of the first people the Chinese fired." He smiled grimly, before getting to his main point, as he always did.
"She had such a petty, cynical…such a hateful vision of America, that I knew it just wouldn’t come true. I just knew." He settled himself, with the satisfaction of a story well-told.
"I guess the Chinese felt the same way," Abriana joked. S
"Maybe!" her father agreed with a chuckle. "Boy, I sure wish I could remember that columnist’s name." He pressed his forehead against the coolness of the window in an attempt to summon the information.
"It doesn’t matter, Pop," she said gently.
As their car approached Mount Vernon Square, it glided smoothly to a stop.
"Why are we stopping here?" Joe asked, a hint of agitation and elderly petulance squeezing his voice. "Do you want to walk the rest of the way? We can’t keep everybody waiting!"
"We have time," she reassured him. "There’s somebody here I thought you might like to see again."
As he rose gingerly from the car, his knees rebelling as they straightened, Joe looked over his shoulder and recognized an old friend.
"Burke!" he exclaimed. "How could I have forgotten?"
Harvard Thomas’ statue of Edmund Burke gleamed in the morning sun. Plenty of people of Joe Diaz’s generation — born, as he often joked, during the "heady reign of William the Philanderer" — took inspiration from Edmund Burke. So many that the 18th century statesman and political philosopher was commonly credited as the godfather of the 21st century American Renaissance.
Joe Diaz, in fact, owed a large part of his political career to Burke’s organic vision of society. He’d served his four terms in the House as a representative of the American Whig Party, which had improbably risen from a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep to dominate Congress.
It had begun almost as a joke, when disillusioned and marginalized members of two loosely-organized, early-century reform groups — the right-wing Tea Party and the leftist Occupy movement — found common cause in Burke’s idea of "little platoons." The idea of government as small, local and responsive was appealing to both sets of dissenters, who set up an outpost on one of the "social networking" sites that were so popular in the early years of the 21st century.
Burke’s ideas, and the new Whig Party, caught fire with an American public burned out on big government, bigger taxation, and in-your-face secularism. The Affordable Care Riots of 2017 and the six-week-long Social Security War that occurred three years later, drove frightened, frustrated Americans to the Whig Party in droves. In just a few years, the Whigs had set up headquarters in every state of the union. By 2030, they had gained control of Congress, and Joe Diaz had now lived to see something he could scarcely have dreamed as a boy: the recent inauguration of the first Whig president since Millard Fillmore took the Oath of Office more than two hundred years earlier.
As Joe enjoyed his moment before his mentor, he fought back a smile. When he had first run for office, his Hispanic background and Catholic faith were still newsworthy. In some cases, in the early days of his career, they were even considered deal-breakers. He could remember well campaigning as a young man and finding, after a rally at some union hall, windshield leaflets peddling shocking lies and even more "shocking" truths, windswept papers he would crumple angrily in the emptying parking lots.
Joe Diaz was, of course, the man who had introduced Abriana to politics, the man who had counseled her against the old cynicisms and the old mistakes, against the dreams of avarice and saying "aye" to that which should always be denied. She once blushed when he repeated for her the slightly racy story of his encounter with a union pipefitter, and how he had gently emasculated the bigot in front of a jeering, squalling crowd. She smiled, as she had always smiled as a girl, with her lips and with her eyes, but Joe could tell that beneath the interest and concern, she really had no idea what he was talking about, had no frame of reference to appreciate the stories. She had no idea, because her America was a much different one than his had been.
For that, Joe made the sign of the cross in silent thanks.
Then he turned, showing his age with his slowness and his thoughts with the grin that had graced so many front lawns in the 12th District. He grabbed the car roof to steady the descent of proud, aching bones that had earned the comfort of a heated leather seat.
"I believe," he said to Abriana, or perhaps to himself, or to the statue, or to no one in particular, "our Edmund is celebrating in his corner of Heaven today."
As they stepped together onto the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Abriana Diaz-Estrada turned to gaze up at her namesake. As he had since 1922, Abraham Lincoln sat looking out somberly over the National Mall, where today nearly two million people were gathered to mark — whether by celebration or protest, or both — America’s Tercentennial.
President Lincoln had been ordained to lead the nation through a time of terrible strife, a time that remained unmatched in the two centuries that followed. Smaller skirmishes, of course, continued to shape the American Experiment. But Abriana had only read of most of these. As her father had realized, she was a student, and a diligent one, but she would never fully understand the country that had passed, just as generations of Americans could never truly know what it was like to travel to the New World in the hold of a creaking, rat-infested ship, or what it was like to suffer the hatred allotted to three-fifths of a citizen, or what it was like to be an oddity, political or otherwise, because of faith or race. She would lead the nation knowing of, but not knowing in her soul, any of these things. And her innocence would be her strength.
The rising sun flashed across the memorial on a slant, and Joe squinted at the little explosion of white light, adjusting his eyes to mute it. It was, he decided, a bit like that columnist he had tried so hard to recall earlier. It had been a flash of white light, as well. Bright, ostentatious, annoying, painful – and ultimately, as Burke himself had suggested, no more lasting than the summer flies that still lazed in great loops across the deepening summer sky.
At that moment, Joe Diaz recalled the name of the columnist – it was as if the light had jarred it loose — but he did not speak it. It didn’t matter. What mattered, as he proudly watched his daughter step behind the podium bearing the Seal of the President of the United States, was the day.
He would remember. He knew it was Independence Day.
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