Bridges, not walls.
Wisdom from the final Obama Administration state visit by Italian Prime Minister Renzi, on this sad week in America.
During official state visits in 2016, the White House welcomed staff, local residents, family, and friends to join the formal arrival ceremonies. Guests gathered early in the morning on the dew soaked grass of the South Lawn, huddled together to wait for President Obama and Michelle to arrive with their guests of honor. Each attendee was given a tiny American flag along with the visiting country’s flag. The pomp and circumstance — a 21 gun salute, members of the military donning their dress blues, bands playing both countries’ national anthems — reminded attendees of our history and relationship to the visiting country.
In March 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came down for a visit with his family. A giddy audience of Canadians and Americans laughed as the two leaders chided each others’ sports teams and talked about our long-lasting friendship. Their camaraderie was sincere, with the arrival ceremony feeling more like a college reunion than a display of foreign diplomacy. The audience swooned. Michelle and Sophie — their elegance! Justin and Barack — our guys! Look at us, world.
A few months later— October 2016— Prime Minister Renzi arrived in D.C. for the final state visit of the Obama Administration. Our election was in a few short weeks, when our Nation would decide who we are and what we wanted to become. President Obama greeted the audience and launched his remarks — at first, a love letter to Italy and the Italians. And then, he reminded us:
“Let me also say that in the Italian-American experience — immigrants who often came here with nothing, who had to learn the language and carve out new lives, and who overcame prejudice and discrimination, relying on the love of family and the strength of their faith, and then have gone on to succeed in every walk of life — we see a truth that we must never forget, and that is that America was built by immigrants, America is stronger because of immigrants, America is great because of immigrants.”
My wet eyes were hidden behind my favorite Italian sunglasses. I squeezed my husband’s arm. Here I was, granddaughter of an Italian immigrant, a man who came on a boat to the United States alone as a child, with nothing, for a better life. Here I was, granddaughter of an Italian immigrant, standing next to my husband, son of immigrant parents, who came to the United States for the promise of opportunity. Here I was, granddaughter of an Italian immigrant, standing next to my husband, on the White House lawn, listening to the President of the United States, for whom I now worked. Here I was, granddaughter of an Italian immigrant, standing next to my husband on the South Lawn of the White House, only because this great country of ours has always welcomed the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Here I was, granddaughter of an Italian immigrant, standing next to my husband on the South Lawn of the White House, only because this great country of ours has always welcomed the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I felt myself trembling — with pride. Not for my own accomplishments, or for my grandfather’s youthful bravery, or for my in-laws’ bold action. I was trembling with pride for America, and what she represents. I was — and am — proud to be an American, whose immigrant roots trace back to Italy, Ireland, Armenia, and Syria. I was proud of America, for being true to her values.
Prime Minister Renzi began to speak. After the platitudes and jokes, he thanked the “many young Americans [who] sacrificed their lives to give freedom back to Italy.” That Italian immigrant grandfather of mine? Yeah, he fought in that war.
And then Renzi talked about today, what America and Italy, and much of the world face together:
“…A new era, a new season full of opportunities, also full of uncertainties. But my personal opinion is the name of the future has to be freedom…Education, not intolerance. Sustainability, not distraction. Trust, not hate. Bridges, not walls.”
Renzi had to pause after that last line, because the crowd was cheering loudly.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”