I dialed up son-in-law Adam on Inauguration Day to see how he and grandson Alex were doing home alone. (Mama Cloe didn’t get the day off from the radiology department.) Adam’s first words into the phone were: “Proud to be an American!”
This was huge coming from a guy who quotes lines from “Team America: World Police,” the savagely satiric puppet movie from the creators of “South Park.”
But Adam meant what he said, and I felt it too, for the first time in a long time.
The country really does appear to be lurching toward sanity. The results of the last two elections were not aberrations after all. The old paradigm to which Cheney/Bush clung so tenaciously, the world-view they lied for, tortured for, trampled the Constitution for, is dead.
(Not that there aren’t neocons out there in their hidey-holes plotting a comeback. I even saw a picture of arch conservative Grover Norquist, the man who said he’d like to shrink government down to where he could “drown it in a bathtub,” appearing on some kind of post-partisan web appeal. But the feeling today is that their small, pinched vision has been utterly discredited.)
Yes, part of the history-making was the fact that Mr. Obama is African-American. The pride and affection (not to mention the thrilled disbelief) of black Americans was a big part of the day. But that was not all of it. Not by a long shot.
To many of the white folks I know who got behind Obama’s candidacy, the issue was not the man’s color, as pleased as we were to see those barriers crumble, at least symbolically. No, in fact, after a while he had no color; he was just a man, an articulate, measured, inspirational man, who promised an end to what had seemed an interminable, eight-year nightmare.
(I admit to paranoid fantasies right up until today, in which Dr. Strangelove and Alfred E. Newman somehow pulled a marshal-law rabbit out of their hats and scotched the whole peaceful-transition-of-power deal.)
The new president (Phew!) gave a speech. (Maybe you heard.) He sprinkled it with something for everyone – a bit of the Bible, a reference to his roots, tough talk for despots and terrorists. For me, the best was his not-so-subtle repudiation of American exceptionalism, mouthed (to perfection, some said) by Ronald Reagan and allowed to run wild under Cheney/Bush.
Mr. Obama called out the short-sightedness, the greed, the killing hubris of their leadership, and called for a remaking of America. He acknowledged the limits of military power and the failed notion that it can be wielded unilaterally. He rejected as false the premise that we have to choose between our security and our ideals. In fact, he said, it is our core values that will see us through dangerous times. Old, true things like honesty and hard work, compassion and tolerance, curiosity (there was a great dig at Incurious George), loyalty and yes, patriotism.
Adam told me that Obama had used the first-person pronoun “I” just three times in his speech. It was the humblest number in our history, except for Harry Truman’s inaugural in which he referenced himself not at all. Adam told me that the final count on the National Mall was something like 1.4 million people. And that all told about two million celebrants poured into the city. E.J. Dionne, an NPR commentator and columnist for the Washington Post, said he’d never seen a crowd “so joyous.”
Yes, they were happy to see George W gone, he said. But joyous also because they “knew in their bones the historic nature of the change.” Now we can, along with people all over the world who are watching, feel good about our country again. Maybe even lead by example again.
I also called my sister, who lives in D.C. I think she had a ticket to the Inauguration proper but decided to join the masses on the Mall instead, just to feel the energy. I didn’t get through. Maybe her cell fell victim to the anticipated service overload.
She did get my message and called back later. “One of the most important things I did today,” Wendy said, “was stand on my neighbor’s roof and watch the helicopter taking Bush away for the last time. I saw it with my own eyes. And it was good.”