As we were preparing to gather with family for dinner while sheltering from the coronavirus, an email arrived from a reader. Its subject line was “I-m-a-g-i-n-e.” Attached was a video of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” at the Republican National Convention in 1984 at Dallas. That was the convention that handed up President Reagan for the campaign in which he won a second term with a victory in 49 of the 50 states. What a unifying moment.
We plan to share the video over dinner with our children, and why not with our readers, of whom we have been thinking constantly during this travail. It’s not that we’ve lost our zest for the political fray. Politics, like newspapering, is a constant effort. Then again, too, the spirit needs refreshment, and it’s hard to think of many moments more refreshing than watching Ray Charles’ absolutely astonishing version of our favorite invocation of the American spirit.
It’s not just the melody of “America the Beautiful” that is so lovely, though we can still remember singing it in elementary school, where we discovered that it’s the most singable of our anthems. We also love the lyrics and the fact that they are a prayer that God grace America and mend her flaws. And a call on Americans to confirm her soul in self-control and her liberty in law. Above all, it asks America to crown its good with brotherhood.
The reader who sent us this clip invited us to imagine that Kanye West might sing at the Republican convention in Charlotte. One can imagine even that he’d sing this song, too, though we don’t yet know whether come summer the political conventions will be able to gather in person. The Ray Charles moment, by our lights, towers over partisan politics. What rivets us is the power of the prayer that he sang so magnificently for a country in which we’re all in it together.
NB: A full version of Ray Charles’ performance at the Republican convention in Dallas can be seen here on C-Span.