My American Dream by Joseph McCormick

In many ways you could say, I have been “in love” with the ideal, the dream of America. I American Flaglived the American dream up until I was 38, almost to the letter. Then, at a predictable stage in my development, I felt betrayed, and was deeply disillusioned. As I look around, that’s precisely what I hear everywhere. People all across this country—and across the red-blue divide—feel betrayed that the American dream they bought has turned into a nightmare.

I came from a middle-class family. My mom’s father drove a bus in the depression in Boston to feed seven children. My mom, a strong leader with firm Dutch-Irish principles, became a nurse (and eventually a leader in her field). My dad was given up for adoption at age three and raised by a Boston Irish cop and his wife (although his family always implied he was part Jewish). Although my dad never completed college, after a stint in the army he became one of the pioneers of aerospace engineering with a Q clearance and dozens of rocketry patents to his name (including on the Gemini and Apollo missile programs). He later left the aerospace industry to start a business around a couple of his patents, and we moved to a small town in upstate New York named Pawling.

I was the family “hero”—a burdensome role in the “family system”—with my father’s name, the fourth of five kids. I did well in school and although not a natural in sports, through sheer determination excelled there too. I dated the most popular girl in the grade below me in high school, was on the Student Council, had three varsity letters, became a co-captain of the football team, and was runner-up for homecoming king. I was all-American. I dreamed of one day becoming president of the United States and began even at this age cultivating my political resume so I would be a “viable candidate.”

There was a shadow though, that I did my best to hide from my friends at school. The stress of entrepreneurship caused my dad to begin drinking, running around, and abusing my mom and sisters. From the age of ten on, I was “adultified.” My oldest sister and I stepped up and did the best we could to keep the household from falling apart. I was the shuttle diplomat between my mother and father, trying to re-unite them and the family.

I desperately wanted to go to West Point and was nominated, but not appointed. Instead I went to another military college, the Virginia Military Institute (the last all-male school in the country). I excelled there, becoming first ranked in electrical engineering and the highest ranked cadet in my class during my junior year (based on peer evaluations.) We went to school six days a week. I thrived on the regimentation and discipline; it was a natural fit for my conservative nature. I cried the day I graduated.

To be president, which was always in the back of my mind—never spoken, except to a handful of my closest colleagues over the years—I would need a powerful resume. After VMI, I served as an infantry officer for two years with the 82nd Airborne Division (our shoulder patch had a double A for All-America) and then two years with the 1st Ranger Battalion. Again I excelled, serving as a rifle, recon, and support platoon leader with “top block” efficiency reports (my last two years), resigning my commission in 1988 to go to graduate school at Yale.[1]

I wanted to get an MBA from the University of Virginia, settle in the Richmond area and build a political career with the support of the tight network of VMI alumnae. When I got acceptance letters from both Virginia and Yale, my fiancée said, “You got into Yale and aren’t going?” That was my sole motivation—the elite name—for going to school there. I knew nothing about the program.  In the end the experience took me on a completely different path in life, into the softer world of individual and group behavior and organizational development.

After my new wife Celeste finished her own studies at Columbia University, we went to live in Budapest, Hungary, just after the wall came down. I had studied some international relations and knew that real life experience abroad was important in politics. Celeste helped Columbia set up an extension program in Hungary and I ended up helping U.S. computer companies get a foothold in this newly opened market.

I even spent about nine months traveling back and forth to Russia, seeking to transition a factory in western Siberia from defense production to consumer products. It was an amazing adventure. These people had been my enemy. In the Army I had trained to defeat them. I had studied everything from their uniforms to order of battle, to their covert and overt operations in Afghanistan. Now I had a chance to have coffee with them.

One day Celeste and I were at the Moscow circus with a retired Soviet diplomat named Anatoly Lebedev and his wife Svetlana. Back in Budapest, in the last days of the USSR, she had been the head of the Soviet Women’s Association and Celeste was the president of the American Women’s Association. Anatoly and I were talking politics and he said that “Bill Clinton is going to be your next president.” He said it so matter-of-factly I took him seriously.

I didn’t know anything about Clinton except that he was a “draft dodger,” but that was enough. I got in touch with a friend from Yale, Curtis Chin, who was a special assistant to the Secretary of Commerce and asked for help getting a job at the headquarters of the Bush-Quayle ’92 campaign. I wasn’t going to let a liberal who hated his country become my president. We went back to Washington where Celeste went to work as an assistant to the president of Georgetown University and I joined the campaign, finishing as an assistant to Director of Political Operations Dave Carney. (He was also White House political director.)

Over the next six years I worked to round out my resume as a “successful entrepreneur” and get myself on the first rung of the elected political ladder. We moved to Celeste’s hometown of Albany, Georgia, where her family was well connected and she had been a national peanut queen, head cheerleader, and president of her high school.

After a 500-year flood that devastated the region we built a successful equipment rental business, which spread to become a regional chain, establishing ourselves as “rising stars” in the community and the Georgia GOP. She served on three prominent boards and I served on three others. I quickly became a Rotarian and chair of the Republican Party in the largest county in the Congressional district.

On October 4th, 1998, with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole campaigning for me for a winnable seat in the U.S. Congress, Celeste asked for a divorce. My life began to unravel. I lost the election, my marriage, my sister to cancer, my reputation to an accusation of date rape from a former campaign aide,[2] and eventually even my business, which I had neglected for politics. Within two years I was desperately confused, sitting in church asking, “Why me? Why, God, are you punishing me?”

On January 1st, 2000—the morning of Y2K—I woke in a hotel room in Atlanta, Georgia, and had my first intuitive experience.[3] From a voiceless voice in the middle of my heart I heard the words “go to Conyers” so I followed the intuition. Conyers, Georgia, I knew, was a Catholic monastery where apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been seen. (I was a devout Catholic and coincidentally the women at my church had recently given me a painting of the Virgin Mary to “watch over me.”)

After a few days at the monastery my life was forever changed. I had been praying so hard for help, I felt saved. Having done everything within my power to control my life and failing, I had finally reached the place of surrender, “let go and let God.” A.A. calls it “hitting bottom.” I knew “my will” was powerless. Having no other choice, I gave up and turned my life over to God, to spirit.

On January 6, 2000, the Catholic Feast of the Epiphany, I began a long inner journey[4] to discover—to become “dis-illusioned” about­—who I am and why I am here; to begin to learn the meaning of empowerment and self-governance and to discover a more authentic American dream; and to do what I could to catalyze the same sincere search in others.


[1] I graduated from the Yale School of Management in 1990 with a Master’s in Public and Private Management (MPPM). But after studying the 1830 Prussian origins of the American system of K–12 education in my cabin in 2002, I burned my diploma in my woodstove. I lost respect for all so-called “education,” including elite college education. Elite college and graduate education in America—with its “best and brightest from every province of the realm”—is built on the Roman model of indoctrination into the imperial management culture.

[2] The accusation was made in a small tabloid newspaper named the Albany Journal while I was in the middle of a divorce. They had been writing about my divorce with two-inch headlines like “Wife Dumps Hubby for Trump” (my soon to be ex-wife was then in the Cayman Islands working on a Trump development). I attacked them with a scathing letter to the editor in the major local newspaper, the Albany Herald (which had endorsed me a year before for Congress.) I called them “a carbuncle on the face of our community.” It was something many business owners thought, but had been afraid to say. After the Journal lost a major car dealer as an advertiser, the editor called me and told me she was going to “run me out of town.” The date rape accusation worked. (I actually had had sex with the former aide a year after my campaign, after filing for divorce, but it was consensual.) I stayed in town for a year and a half to prove my innocence, but it cost my All-American boy reputation dearly and was enough to make my Christian Coalition colleagues uncomfortable about my future political viability. The experience taught me a tough political lesson: “Never pick a fight with people who buy their ink by the barrel.”

[3] Intuition literally means “inner teaching,” i.e., getting quiet and listening to the “still, small Voice.”

[4] This journey has been mapped by countless mystics. It follows a pattern that Joseph Campbell calls the “hero’s journey.” It’s also beautifully described by Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist. It always starts and ends in the same place, the heart.

Excerpted from Reuniting America: A Toolkit for Changing the Political Game by Joseph McCormick and Steve Bhaerman

After nearly a decade as a Christian Coalition activist and Republican nominee for the U.S. Congress in one of the most conservative districts in America, Joseph McCormick learned firsthand the most destructive force in our country today is Americans taking sides against other Americans. The turning point in his life came in 2001 when his political career, marriage, business and reputation collapsed, his relationships having been eroded by mistrust and hatred of his enemies. The pain of this personal loss was transformative and he began slowly rebuilding his life on more solid ground, searching for a healthier way to engage in politics.

Since 2004 he has organized a series of ground breaking private retreats that brought over 145 national leaders representing over 70 million Americans into dialogue in search of opportunities to collaborate. His passion now is to apply the tools developed in these gatherings to facilitating cooperation between grassroots groups from all sides. In time, this informal citizen leader’s network will serve as a resource for local, state and national decision makers searching for innovative, bottom-up, win-win solutions in this time of crisis. He is a former officer in the U.S. Army Rangers and a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and Yale University. For more information, click here.

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