When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.
Only an American could have written that.
Ned Washington was born in Scranton, Pa., in 1901 and died at the age of 76 in Los Angeles. He was a prolific lyricist; in addition to “When You Wish Upon a Star” he wrote the lyrics to “Stella by Starlight,” “My Foolish Heart,” “The Nearness of You” and the theme song for the Gary Cooper movie, “High Noon.” Plus many more.
Some years ago I was struck by the realization that only an American could have written “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The song is rooted in the basic American optimism that everyone is worthy of the best things in life.
No European could have written the lines:
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme …
European history is too soaked in blood and bitter tyrannies and ancient hatreds for any Frenchman or German or Brit to even think of such a fantastic ideal.
No Asian, steeped in ages of hunger and poverty and injustice, could have penned:
Fate is kind …
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.
I’m not saying that America has been free of bloodshed, disillusion, hunger and poverty. But in America there has always been the chance to escape the limitations of birth, the possibility that you can rise above your beginnings, the promise of a golden door that’s waiting for you to open it.
Ours is a land of opportunity — and optimism.
Why is this so?
I think it’s because this nation has been, from its inception, from its very earliest days as a set of British colonies, a land built on freedom. At first it was freedom for white males only, and white males of property, at that. But gradually, painfully, freedom has been extended to every citizen, regardless of wealth, race, gender or sexual preference.
This is so much a part of our being that we often don’t think consciously about it. Of course a cartoon cricket in a Disney movie could croon “When You Wish Upon a Star.” In our heart of hearts, we believe it to be true.
Yet this nation, built on the concept of freedom, is an ongoing experiment. Can free people govern themselves? Or will our democracy inevitably fade away?
Two days from now we have an opportunity to answer those questions by going to the polls to vote in the primary election. This year’s election campaign is one of the hottest in decades. It’s fairly normal for the party in power to lose seats in Congress in an off-year election. But this year might show a stronger-than-normal backlash against the incumbents.
Is there really a groundswell of populist opposition to the Obama administration’s handling of the recession? Will tea party rallies translate into an effective political counterattack against ballooning budget deficits and growing disillusion about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Will the new health-care law actually bring better and more affordable health care to most Americans? Will the new regulations enacted on the financial and banking industries protect us from economic meltdowns?
These are important questions, of course. But to me, the most important factor in this year’s election campaign is that people are becoming politically active. The basis of American democracy is rooted in the idea that if we don’t like what our political leaders are doing, we can boot them out and elect new leaders.
And that is also the basis of our fundamental optimism. We don’t have to sit by helplessly and allow the government to tell us what to do. We are the government! Those people we send to Washington are our representatives. They work for us, not the other way around.
That is why a guy from Scranton could write:
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through …
Our fate is in our own hands. Too often we forget that. We have the power. It’s time to use it.
We can do more than wish on a star.
We can vote.
Ben Bova of Naples is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Immortality Factor,” a novel about politics and stem cell research. Dr. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com.