The iconic first words of “The Godfather” are “I believe in America,” told from one Italian immigrant to another. The statement of faith is both a longing for the American dream and the realization that it remains out of reach; the land of the free and the home of the brave is rife with injustice. At the same time, the statement is a reminder that the pure faith of the immigrant is still hard to shake; in many ways, it’s the people who struggle to make this country home that believe in its lofty ideals the most.
I thought about this line, and of my own immigrant parents, while watching Khizr and Ghazala Khan deliver a 6-minute long presentation that lived on, days after the Democratic National Convention, to become the defining moment of reckoning for the 2016 presidential elections. The couple, the parents of an Army Captain killed in Iraq in 2004, delivered a staggering judgment of GOP nominee Donald Trump. In the speech’s most iconic moment, Khizr, who was speaking, drew out a small copy of the Constitution and held it up to the crowd. “Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”
It was the political convention’s version of a mic drop. Party politics tend to be drenched with a stultifying, cloying rhetoric of American exceptionalism and rosy-eyed patriotism. The Khans, through some magic of their own, resonated with simple power and clarity. Indeed, as Donald Trump quickly learned, attacking them using the typical talking points utilized by his campaign didn’t work on them at all; if anything the Khans grew stronger with each volley.
The worst backfire for Trump was when the candidate suggested that Ghazala, who wears a hijab, was silent onstage because she “wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” The bereaved mother, who also edited her husband’s remarks at the DNC, wrote a blistering op-ed in response for the Washington Post, asking what Trump had sacrificed for the war. “Without saying a thing, all the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart.”
To date, Trump has not found a way to respond that has spun the needle of public sympathy back towards him. And the Khans’ media tour continues, from appearances on broadcast and cable news to sitdown interviews with NPR and the New York Times. There has been a certain kind of choreography to their appearances — for example, Khizr Khan recounted on “All Things Considered” how he and Ghazala repeated the gesture of taking the constitution from his pocket over and over until he got it just right. But there is also an expression of honesty and decency that, in 2016, raises the suspicions of media-savvy consumers. As moved as I was by the Khans’ words, I also wondered: Who found these people? Who wrote that speech? Who told Khizr Khan to take the constitution out of his pocket? Is this a story ripped from the idealistic citizenship of “The West Wing” — or the cynical manipulation of “House Of Cards”?
I asked around. I spoke to both James King, the Vocativ reporter whose 2015 interview with Khizr Khan caught the attention of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Hamed Aleaziz, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who profiled Khizr Khan before his big speech.
King and his coworkers began to research the families of fallen Muslim-American soldiers following one of the many “outlandish statements” Trump has made about banning Muslims in America. “Here are these people that have made the ultimate sacrifice,” King said, recounting their brainstorming process, “and wouldn’t be here if this plan was put in place.”
King’s Vocativ interview inspired the Clinton campaign to contact the Khans and ask for permission to use their story in one of her speeches, and eventually, in a campaign video. That eventually snowballed into the DNC appearance.
Aleaziz told me he has made it a point to cover the Muslim experience in the 2016 election, so when he saw the Khans on the DNC’s speakers list, he pursued a story. In neither case was there a publicist pushing these two poster children for the American dream on the reporters, for example, or the opportunism of a family looking for attention. The stories they tell now match the military’s story of their son’s death and their own quotes from 2004. Frankly, the Khans are more credible than either candidate running for president.
And listening to Khizr Khan on NPR’s “All Things Considered” is an exercise in suspending cynicism. He explains that long been enamored of pocket constitutions because he is fond of the work of Thomas Jefferson. He used to give them as gifts to guests at his home. As a lawyer, he finds them insightful and inspiring reading; when he begins to read aloud from the preamble on-air, he becomes audibly choked up. Following his DNC speech, pocket-sized constitutions have become sudden bestsellers.
This is all in direct contrast to the rest of the election, which constantly creates more reasons to be frustrated, disappointed, and disillusioned. Just a few days ago, CNN correspondent Corey Lewandowski — formerly Trump’s campaign manager — revived the question of President Obama’s “true” birth certificate and went on to question if he actually went to college at Harvard. And on Friday, the Clinton campaign somehow became mired in the question of emails again, after ongoing controversy about her refusal to take questions from the media. And just to put it all in perspective, Donald Trump apparently is not clear on why, as commander-in-chief, he shouldn’t use nuclear weaponry. This media cycle has been one of perpetual cynicism in the American political process.
Which is why, of all of the volleys in this 2016 campaign, it’s the Khans’ sincere and passionate patriotism that has resonated the most. It has been a rare display of believable showmanship; Khizr Khan may have practiced his gesture, and Ghazala Khan edited her words, but like the best scripted television — and unlike the worst politics — the consideration enhanced the power of the moment, instead of layering it with a veneer of artifice. At arms’ length, this has been a climax that was carefully written, thoughtfully directed, and perfectly cast with the exact kind of Americans the Trump campaign has been trying to erase from our narrative.
The irony is that the Khans’ media life was created by Trump’s own racist politics; in denying the patriotism and loyalty of Muslims, he motivated reporters to go looking and Khizr Khan to speak out. Trump spawned the perfect counterexamples to his rhetoric, creating a situation where he has been shown up on his own American-ness by a Muslim immigrant who knows the constitution better than he does. It’s a plot twist worthy of fiction.
A recurrent theme at the DNC is that “America is already great,” responding to Trump’s constantly parodied campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” But without quite saying it this way, Khizr Khan, like other immigrants before him, offered a message that said, I believe in America. It is a powerful statement coming from a man that has lost so much. And it asks the viewer to consider the depth and loyalty of his or her own faith.