Curt Smith: Kate Smith and assimilation

Curt Smith

A new Associated Press-Univision poll of more than 1,500 Hispanics includes a troubling, even stunning, fact: Forty-six percent — a near-majority — do not wish to change to assimilate into America, roughly defined as learning English, prizing American history and tradition, and respecting U.S. law.

This finding should alarm on every level. First, as Lincoln said, “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” Second, the polling percentage routs any other current U.S. group. Third, it contradicts the American experience. Historically, every large immigrant group has yearned to assimilate — until now.

In the 1800s, Germans, Poles, Slavs and Irish haltingly, but never grudgingly, learned U.S. language and culture. Later, Italians assimilated through, among other things, baseball, cheering The Great DiMag, as Ernest Hemingway immortalized in “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Jews fixated on education. “Reading daily newspapers (in 1930s New York) provided the main opportunity to learn the new language and practice arithmetic,” wrote the New York Times’ Leonard Koppett, arriving at age 5 from Russia. “It was the essential and dominant feature of my Americanization.” Assimilation is what we were, even more than did.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “Anyone who calls himself a hyphenated American is not a real American.” It is fine to prize native music, food and holiday. It is toxic to shun a unifying tongue, worship identity politics and demand immigration amnesty. U.S. currency reads e pluribus Unum — out of many, one. The AP poll suggests out of one, many: group-grievance me, not general-interest we.

For contrast, retrieve TR’s fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, introducing singer Kate Smith to Britain’s visiting George VI in 1939, saying, “This is America!” By then, the mega popular CBS radio star and future recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom had become the peerless Voice of America’s timeless tune.

In 1918, Irving Berlin, another Russian-Jewish emigrant, wrote “God Bless America,” tying loyalty (“Land that I love”), faith (“With a light from above”) and unity (“From the mountains, to the prairies”). In 1938, he revised it for Smith, who made it hers. Since 9/11, we have heard Kate’s version everywhere. Not a boom box, like Merman, or balladeer, like Sinatra, but America as we imagine her — moral and strong and free.

Smith retired in the 1960s. Then, in 1969, hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers decided to replace the National Anthem before a game with her hymn. They won, played it again, and won again. Soon Kate’s record was 37-3-1. On Opening Night 1973, she performed live at Philly’s Spectrum. “When she stepped out on the red carpet and belted out her song,” wrote Brian McFarlane, “the roof almost came off the building.”

In 1974, she again appeared at center ice, “thunderous applause drowning out her final word,” cheering as Americans, not once-Czech or -Welch or -Hispanic. The Flyers won the Stanley Cup, Kate inspiring them as she had GIs in Burma and Bastogne. This spring, the Flyers again played her before each finals game, hailing a song of common prose, common history and respect for common rules.

In 1986, Smith died at 79. You can see her vault at Lake Placid, statue outside the Flyers’ Wachovia Center, and America in her lilting, longing melody. According to the AP, one in two polled — indeed, too many people of every race — don’t even want to know about Valley Forge or Kate Smith or Omaha Beach or the Roosevelts. They should be ashamed.

Each of us weighs loyalties, personal and professional. Often we must choose, as between U.S. unity or ethnic solidarity. Should any group be in, but not of, America? Should any demand taxpayer-funded bilingualism, forge an invasion of 12-15 million illegal aliens and request citizenship as entitlement? Break the law, win a prize?

According to The Associated Press, 54 percent of Hispanics know that without assimilation America is not America. What about the other half? As Benjamin Franklin said, signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”

Curt Smith is the author of 13 books and a former speechwriter to President George H.W. Bush. E-mail curtsmith@netacc.net.

The views expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.