PEORIA — Save the long-winded analysis and dissection of the current state of the American democracy for another time and forum. Valerie Jarrett, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, gave a succinct characterization to a crowd of more than 1,000 guests at Monday's annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day luncheon.
"It's a mess," she said. "It's a big mess."
While acknowledging the dysfunction and polarity of Washington that has led to a monthlong shutdown of many government services, Jarrett added a message of love, service and responsibility to the long roster of King Day keynote speakers that includes poet Maya Angelou, professor Michael Eric Dyson, actress Cicely Tyson and singer Patti LaBelle.
In her 30-minute address, Jarrett never once mentioned President Donald Trump by name, the Republican party or the construction of an immigration-halting wall along the southern United States border with Mexico. Instead, she encouraged the need for citizen involvement in government, public activism, personal empowerment and individual effort in protecting and preserving American democracy.
Brimming with optimism, not vitriol, Jarrett related the short version of her public biography with stories about her first public sector job in the administration of Chicago Mayor Harold Robinson in the 1980s, her continuing work to end criminal injustice and voter disenfranchisement and of her friendships with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. Throughout all of it, she emphasized the need for citizen participation.
"Forty-three percent (of registered voters) did not vote (in the presidential election of 2016). It is our most fundamental responsibility of citizenship," she said. "How could it be? People have been beat up and imprisoned for our right to vote, and we can't afford to shun our duty or disengage."
Jarrett previewed her speech during a brief conversation with local reporters prior to the luncheon.
"Each generation has to take the baton and do its part to perfect the union," she said. "We can never rest on our laurels. We can never afford to shun government or the other institutions that are the fundamental pillars of our democracy."
Jarrett was introduced to the crowd by Garry Moore, the long-running master of ceremonies of the event, who called her the trusted adviser to President Obama who often delivered the last line of advice on topics of national importance. Sort of like the "Obama whisperer," Moore said.
Jarrett told the luncheon crowd that she refuses to be discouraged by the current state of politics.
"The reason why I'm optimistic is as I travel the country I continue to see ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Whether it is the young people of Parkland, Florida, (the location of a mass school shooting last year) or those who travel the country and register people to vote, or the women's marches (participants and organizers) or the number of people running for office now who never thought about getting in politics before," she said. "They give me inspiration and hope."
She wove the words and messages of Dr. King into her speech.
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that," Jarrett said, quoting Dr. King. "Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
In conclusion, she added her own words.
"It is your choice," she said. "Choose light and love."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow@scotthilyard on Twitter.