Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My impressions of the inauguration of Barack Obama

I watched the inaugural by myself yesterday, on a small television propped up in a corner of our condo in Charlottesville. I was invited to a gathering across town, but I chose not to go, nursing my cold. I had friends in Washington DC, but chose not to join them. Friends on the Mall text messaged me through the day, and my friend, Tony, sent the photo at right from his iPhone standing near the Washington Monument. Lori was at an inaugural breakfast party in California with current, former and bought-out reporters and editors with The Sacramento Bee, and sent video from the party. 

In my sea of technological connections, I found myself choked up at times by the images of Michelle Obama and her yellow dress, by Barack Obama’s smile, by Muhammad Ali pushing his walker onto the platform, by Dianne Feinstein explaining the Yosemite painting at the Congressional luncheon, and most especially by the images of the crowds and their flags.

I was choked up by the music, beginning Sunday night with Bruce Springsteen’s “Come up for the Rising” and Tuesday with Aretha Franklin’s “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and Yo Yo Ma and his friends playing strains of Aaron Copeland. I was choked up by the poetry and the music of the moment.

As a candidate, Barack Obama’s rhetoric only grew stronger as his candidacy grew. His speeches became poetry, not just policy statements. Even the names of his children are poetry: Malia and Sasha.

Yesterday, as a new President, he allowed the poetry to surround him. His words were as simple as they were muscular. “We will act,” he said, and it is about all he really needed to say. The new President used the poetry of Scripture to tell us it is time to “put away childish” ways and make the hard choices we’ve avoided really since the Reagan years.

And the sea of people cheered and waved their flags.

The problem with inaugurals – especially this one – is that the music and poetry and the magic will make it seem that the presidency of Barack Obama was inevitable, that his inauguration was destiny. It wasn’t. It came on the backs of slaves and civil rights workers and other presidents like Lyndon Johnson whose formidable skills brought forth the Voting Rights acts of the 1960s, and Supreme Court justices like Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren. Barack Obama would be the first to tell you that.

This inauguration came because Barack Obama is a smart, shrewd politician who learned from his mistakes, hired really smart, shrewd people, and they ran a tough campaign and bounced back from one set back after another. His inauguration was a triumph of the American spirit, yes, but it was also triumph of American politics played very, very hard, for keeps, by very able contenders, any one of whom could have won and stood up there yesterday as the Chief Justice fumbled the oath.

All that is true. And, yet, Barack Obama put poetry and music and optimism into the day by his presence, his manner, his smile, and the people he brought with him. And the people, so full of hope, from sea-to-shining sea, are ready for the clouds to lift, ready for hope, ready to be done with cynical leaders governing cynically, ready to call Barack Obama their President, and praying he will succeed, will not disappoint, that he will make his poetry real.

And that brings me to my favorite character on the TV program West Wing, Josh Lyman, the fictional deputy chief of staff, whose fondest words always were: “What’s next?”

What’s next? 

Photo at top by Anthony Ramirez; photos at bottom from the New York Times.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,
Great post. Hoorah for America and Obama!
Wonderful to meet you at Christmas and see your vibrant leadership of St. Paul's.
Warm regards,
Chad Poist

Karen Boone said...


Of COURSE your favorite character on the "West Wing" was Josh Lyman. I loved your post.