SOUTH  PORTLAND — “That hypocritical son of a bitch. This is going to beat me.”

So responded 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt’s campaign promise to America’s mothers, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

Willkie was right, and Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term as history bore down on an America psychologically and materially unprepared for war. U-boats and the Luftwaffe had pushed Britain to the brink of bankruptcy and starvation. In a Dec. 8, 1940, letter to Roosevelt, Winston Churchill warned that Britain would soon be unable to “pay cash” for shipping and supplies. Roosevelt absorbed this massive fact and conceived of Lend-Lease, which he introduced at a Dec. 17 news conference with the famous line that when your neighbor’s house is on fire, you lend him a hose. Lend-Lease would allow Britain to “borrow” war equipment and supplies from the United States under terms that made such goods essentially a gift.

Churchill called it “the most unsordid act … in history,” but it faced opposition from isolationist Senate Republicans. Putting patriotism above partisanship, Willkie, in riveting Senate testimony and at great personal political risk, provided crucial support for Roosevelt – now calling him “my president” – and in March 1941 Lend-Lease was enacted. At the 20th century’s fulcrum point, two American political rivals acted in noble concert to bend history’s arc in the direction of freedom.

In the midst of all of this had come Roosevelt’s Third Inaugural Address, one of American history’s forgotten great speeches. “A nation, like a person,” proclaimed Roosevelt, “has a body that must be fed and clothed … a mind that must be kept informed and alert … and … something deeper … more permanent, something larger than the sum of all its parts … it is the spirit – the faith of America.” There are times when history writes checks against a nation’s moral reserves, against what might be called our Moral Capital Bank, whose daily balance is a measure of the strength of our spirit and the depth of our faith. In a sense, we are always living on the accumulated moral capital of our forebears, which will eventually run out if not replenished, such replenishment coming in the cumulation of the moral acts of individual citizens and the nation at large. Every commandment obeyed, every bounty shared, every noble sentiment, every courageous act adds to the moral reserve. All to the contrary subtract. Out of this come habits of thought and action that define a nation and a time.  At the great moments, America’s moral capital bank has never been overdrawn. Valley Forge, Little Round Top, Omaha Beach, Selma, the Challenger disaster, 9/11 – we have never bounced history’s checks because there’s always been more that’s right about America than what’s wrong – much more.

And now the coronavirus strikes at the time of our greatest national disunity since the Civil War. The beautiful patriotism that flowered after 9/11 has devolved into partisanship, rancor and hate, straining our bonds of affection, suppressing the better angels of our nature and dulling our mystic chords of memory. I resist the temptation to place blame, because forgiveness must look forward, and we must heal – above all, we must heal – first the virus, then our national soul. Regarding the former, Americans have responded magnificently to the call for discipline and sacrifice, and we are prevailing. Regarding the latter, we await the Roosevelts and Willkies among us who will rise above the politics of personal destruction and nurture our flickering embers of unity into a raging conflagration of unstoppable common purpose.

Imagine our achievements were we united. The president has said, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” words not unlike Roosevelt’s Third Inaugural peroration, which I adopt as my own: “In the face of great perils never before encountered … we muster the spirit of America, and the faith of America. We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.