“Find the good and praise it.”
This quote from Alex Haley used by Tennessee Senator, Lamar Alexander, just before the swearing in of Barack Obama for his second term this week, was striking. As a Republican, the inauguration of a Democratic President would not have been Senator Alexander’s first choice, obviously, but his eloquently delivered speech was gracious and meaningful. He said, “Today we praise the American tradition of transforming, or reaffirming, immense power in the inauguration of the President of the United States. We do this in a peaceful, orderly way. There is no mob. No coup. No insurrection.” He continued, “It is a moment that is our most conspicuous and enduring symbol of the American democracy. How remarkable that this has survived for so long in such a complex country when so much power is at stake. This freedom to vote for our leaders and the restraint to respect the results.”
It was this last – “the restraint to respect the results” – that I found particularly arresting in light of the virulent, almost vitriolic, faction fighting between the two parties. We have to hope that the measured restraint of the Senior Senator from Tennessee will prevail – on both sides. As the President said in his inaugural address, speaking about America’s capacity for risk and gift for reinvention, “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.”
I have now been able to witness “the American tradition of transforming, or reaffirming, immense power in the inauguration of the President of the United States” four times. For the first inauguration of George W. Bush I was a neophyte; for his second, in the aftermath of the start of the Iraq war, I was in despair; for the first inauguration of Barack Obama I was euphoric; for his second – perhaps like the President himself – hopeful but less idealistic.
There is hope, though, and seeing the country coming together for this moving ritual, with all the pomp, ceremony and reverence, made me feel proud, again, to be able to call myself a citizen. In that vein, the part of the President’s inaugural address that leaped out as if he had been speaking directly to me was when he said that the oath he had just taken was not so different from the oath that is taken when “an immigrant realizes her dream.” The fact that he chose to use that specific pronoun made it a very tender moment for me.
It was one of many in the speech, even if the others didn’t have quite the same personal significance. I loved the way he framed the whole address around the Declaration of Independence and the central, vital tenet, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The way he repeated the words, “We, the people…” as a leitmotif through the speech gave it an exquisite resonance, particular as he used it to underscore his central themes:
“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.
“We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change…
“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…” and continuing on this theme, again making use of a leitmotif, “For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law… Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity… Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.”
We have known from before he was first elected President, that Barack Obama is a gifted speaker. What has not always been so evident is his humanity. Sometimes he comes across as being above it all. But the most poignant moment of the whole inauguration came when he left the platform outside the Capitol and everyone was streaming out past him; he turned and said that he wanted to look again – at the thousands thronging the Mall from the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial – because he would not see that again. And he won’t in this way, as a newly inaugurated President of the United States. I’m so personally grateful that he got to see that twice.