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America, what a country!

It was June 30, and a work assignment took me on the road for a 100-mile round trip. It was just before 9 a.m. on a cool, but getting warm morning. The sky was clear and blue, the wind was calm, not a ripple on the lakes and ponds as I drove along, and I was cheerful and optimistic as I motored down the road. Even the highway itself seemed almost perfect.

Then I started thinking about the upcoming 4th of July -- American Independence Day -- and how we go about having picnics, ball games and celebrations without slowing down to consider where we live and what we have.

A presidential election year is a good time to think about our country. If we start listing our problems we can be overwhelmed by discouragement: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, poverty and hunger at home, folks who can't afford health care, global warming, environmental issues, the high cost of energy and groceries, an economy on the edge, floods, tornadoes, mortgage foreclosures, jobs going to China and India, immigrations loopholes -- the list never ends.

If you enjoy despair, you can look around and wallow in it. Our political campaigns are chaotic, sometimes messy. We have the freedom to say anything we want and we say it, we print it, we broadcast it. Just read the letters to the editor. They're not short, not nice and not tidy.

We never quite get it right. Our democracy is not pretty, but it's the envy of the world. We have the right to pursue our own good in our own way, as long as we don't interfere with our neighbor doing the same thing. Read the Bill of Rights -- it's all there.

Excuse me for remaining optimistic, but I believe we have two honest and talented leaders running for president and whichever one we elect will do a good job in one of the most difficult and thankless positions in the world. There is only one excuse for not voting this year -- your funeral got scheduled before Nov. 4.

When my grandparents came to this country from Germany, Russia, Sweden and Scotland, they had a vision that we sometimes forget. No matter how little they had to start with, they knew that this was the land of opportunity. It was for them, and it still is for us. There are no dukes, earls or princes in America, so humble beginnings are no problem. Very few of our ancestors came over on the top deck of the boat.

Tim Russert's dad, "Big Russ," the garbage hauler from Buffalo, N.Y., who loved his work, loved politics and loved his family, always told Tim, "What a country!" Tim, who died last month and who achieved success beyond his wildest dreams because of hard work, his own love of politics and basic decency, always said the same thing -- "What a country!" We produce greatness generation after generation. For example, we produced Bill Gates, a genuine nerd who dropped out of college and co-founded Microsoft and became one of the richest people in the world. What makes Gates great is not his wealth (he made a fortune in America in one generation), but his philanthropy -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending billions of dollars to improve the health of children in Africa. Who in the world can match what Gates is doing? But many have the same heart. There is someone living within a mile of you right now who will stop and change your tire when you're in trouble and never think about leaving his name.

We have no Church of England here and no state religion, yet more Americans go to church than almost anywhere in the world. Freedom of religion hasn't separated us from religion, it has brought us closer to it.

I could have been born in China or India or in some part of deepest Africa, but by the grace of God, I was born in America and this is a good time for all of us to remember our good fortune.

For all our troubles and problems, there is no other place like this homeland of ours. God bless America.

What a country!