Mr. Obama, tear down this wall!

By focusing on the lessons of Justice O’Connor’s life story, President Obama could continue his healing Tucson moment with his upcoming State of the Union Address. In her public life, O’Connor, a rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl from the Southwest, discovered the perfect blend of plain-spoken American values and Junior League gentility. While she learned to tote a gun and ride the range as a young girl, and is proud of her hardscrabble upbringing on the Day family’s “Lazy B” ranch at the parched Arizona-New Mexico border, her parents encouraged a voracious appetite for reading and commitment to elite education. She graduated from Stanford at age twenty and enrolled in its law school as one of only a handful of women in her class of 1952. A Palinesque embrace of anti-intellectualism was simply not her style.  Instead, O’Connor placed a bull’s eye on the pragmatic center that defines most Americans’ politics and ideology. Hitting that common-sense target, she found common ground as the first female majority leader of a state senate and as the influential “swing vote” on the nation’s highest tribunal.

Now five years into a productive retirement, O’Connor is devoting her life to teaching American youth about the United States government. As she frequently insists to social studies teachers, “Democracy is not genetic; it must be learned!” While still on the high court, O’Connor became alarmed at the verbal attacks and threats on federal judges. They were increasingly becoming the negative focus of political campaigns. What had happened to the sacred constitutional principle of judicial independence? America’s founding fathers deliberately placed the national courts above the fray of electoral politics.  Once the Senate confirms the president’s nominations of federal judges, they serve for “good behavior,” in effect, life, subject only to the rarely used impeachment process. To preserve the judiciary’s authority, power, and legitimacy, and teach students about its place in the U.S. government, Justice O’Connor has launched www.iCivics.org, a series of free video games about the democratic process. She and her formerly camera-shy colleague, retired Justice David Souter, now are out on the road and airwaves, touting the importance of teaching civics.

President Obama should riff off their pro-democracy theme on January 25th in his annual address to Congress and the nation. The date falls between two presidential anniversaries that the country will commemorate with respect and perhaps even bi-partisanship: the half-century since John F. Kennedy’s inaugural and the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. The incumbent president should resurrect the optimism and inspiration that each of these “great communicators” engendered, but dismantle the wall between Americans and their government that Reagan constructed by proclaiming that it constituted the source of our problems. 

As the president noted in his Tucson speech, Congresswoman Giffords’s community outreach coordinator, Gabe Zimmerman, lost his life “seeing to it that seniors got the Medicare benefits they had earned, that veterans got the medals and care they deserved, that government was working for ordinary folks.” To learn about our government through civic education and engagement is to learn that it is not the enemy. It consists of dedicated public servants drawn from the much-invoked classification “we the people.” 

Justice O’Connor would have loved Christina-Taylor Green, the youngest victim in Tucson.  By all heart-breaking accounts, she was just the sort of public-spirited student the justice is trying to cultivate. President Obama tells us that we must rededicate ourselves to the ideals that the precocious nine-year-old had already embraced in her short life. He might want to draw on President Kennedy’s first State of the Union Address for inspiration in that endeavor, during these trying times: “Let it be clear that this administration recognizes the value of dissent... that we greet healthy controversy as the hallmark of healthy change. Let the public service be a proud and lively career. And let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and honor in future years, ‘I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.’”

Dr. Barbara A. Perry is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. A scholar of the presidency, Supreme Court, and civic education, she is the author of eight books, including The Priestly Tribe: The Supreme Court’s Image in the American Mind.