I had had this thought before; it was not a new one. Probably many of you have had it also. But as I listened to this speech of all speeches, I suddenly realized how vitally important it is to recognize what it all means and to understand what a titanic event is transpiring before our very eyes.
The thought, a simple one, was this:
Barack Hussein Obama is the only president ever elected who could have made this speech and been seen as absolutely sincere. He is the only man ever elected to this office who has ever truly had a chance to heal the partisan wounds of this nation. He is the only man ever elected to this office who might succeed in getting the vast majority of the country to buy into and believe in something beyond ourselves, our parties, our ideologies. More than any of the great presidents before him, this is so. And the reason became absolutely clear as he spoke in that Washington chill.
It lay in his own words that poured out into the enthusiastic crowd:
We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
He was speaking of America, but he might as well have been speaking of a very specific segment of our country, a segment of which he--and he alone among the men who have been elected president--is a part.
Obama's status as the nation's first black president has been played out again and again in the media. Pundits have rammed it down our throats since the campaign began, and certainly since the election itself. We've probably seen enough references to Lincoln, King, Tubman, slaves, Little Rock, Selma, Parks, and so many other iconic symbols of civil rights by now that, like Stephen Colbert, those of us who don't happen to be black wish we were.
(He makes this plea about 5:15 into the video.)
COLBERT: Welcome to the Report. We continue our live coverage tonight. Today, the 20th of January, in the Year of Our Lord 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America.
Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. It was very brave of me to admit that. You can already feel the change sweeping across this land as a new era begins: a time of brotherhood, when men of different backgrounds and beliefs will come together to marry one another.
Now a lot of people thought I didn't want Barack Obama to be president; that's not true. I just didn't want him to be President of America. I thought he could do a great job in Nicaragua. If I am sad it is only for the Nicaraguans.
But this man is now our president and, as an American, I pledge to support him unconditionally for as long as he remains popular.
The inauguration began this morning at 11:30. Everyone was there dressed to the nines. Aretha Franklin even managed to steal a bow off a Lexus to wear for the occasion.
Wow. Sorry I got something in my eye. I don't know what that is. Um. Of course the Queen of Soul got a great response from the two million people who came to the city from all walks of life to put aside their differences and stand as brothers.
That's nice. What is wrong with my eyes today? Is there a cat in here? I'm allergic.
Then...Then, Barack Hussein Obama made his power grab. Wow, that is one good looking man.
OBAMA: ...preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
ROBERTS: So help you God?
OBAMA: So help me God.
COLBERT: Oh my God.... Jimmy?
OBAMA: America is a friend of each nation and every man woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity and we are ready to lead once more.
COLBERT: Oh my God. That is so...that just feels so right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry I'm not angry. I know we have a deal: you watch and I scream. I'm really dropping the ball here. OK, I can do it. I can do it. I can do it.
Jimmy, play something else.
NO, NOT THE CHILDREN! NO< THEY"RE SO BEAUTIFUL! OHH! OHH!
Ohhh...ohhh...ahhhh...Oh my God. Oh, I'm sorry. I just feel like my heart is gonna burst because it's full of rainbows.
LOWERY: When black will not be asked to give back. When brown can stick around. When yellow can be mellow. When the red man can get ahead, man.
COLBERT: That is the best Dr. Seuss book ever. Oh, I loved that old man. I just loved him. He was just so authentic, you know? Ah, why can't I be black? You know, you know just for one day. Why can't I be black today? Could I be black for just a while? Could I put on makeup? Could I put on makeup? I'm being told, no, I shouldn't do that. That would be a career-ending decision. That even talking about it is a bad idea. OK. Oh, fuddle. I've got to get it together.
Come on, Jimmy. Show me something that will turn my heart to ice.
(Pic of Cheney)
OH, GOD! Oh, my God! Whew! Oh! Oh, man! I said freeze, not kill! Man that gave me the shrinkydinks.
But silly comedy concepts aside, what ran through my mind is the notion that only a man of color, a man who does not possess the intense baggage of the atrocities against other races that any white man carries by proxy, who does not carry with him the expectations of a power elite that has banked on Privilege for decades, if not centuries, and counted on our leaders to help it along, who does not (in short) have ties to any of the things that have held this country down for so long, can hope to cut through the brambles and briars and get to the garden which has been nearly choked off. Who else can say, with no irony and with the expectation of being both believed and accepted, that he believes in the notion of emerging from dark chapters of history "stronger and more united," believes "that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself"? Who else ever could have said that?
Barack Obama, when he tells us that he wishes to be the president of all of us, to heal the wounds of the country, to reach out even to his enemies, has credibility because he comes from a people who have suffered. He can offer harmony and Hope because, while he personally has never "toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth," he can speak from Power for those who have. His wife's ancestors were slaves who, as the pundits couldn't stop informing us, helped build the very marble monuments on which he was being inaugurated. He can offer an end to suspicion and disunion because, for the first time in American history, the meek have inherited.
And the fact that he has no ties to the vast corporations who have been running the show forever means that President Obama can be trusted to make non-partisan decisions about everything from defense to Wall Street. He has no one to appease, and when he says,
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
we have no reason to doubt that he means what he says.
The GOP, desperate to maintain anything remotely resembling its former leash on power, will do what it can to impede progress. It already is, with its lame and lamentable efforts to hold up the seating of Senator Franken and the confirmations of Attorney General Holder and Secretary Geithner, and other officers, among other annoyances. And of course they will attempt to throw roadblocks at his grander plans as well, though he had this to say about that:
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
Our president has challenged us in the most fundamental way to rethink and restart the "story called America." And the challenge is working. This morning I saw a newspaper whose front page consisted of nothing but a full page photo of Obama taking the oath of office. Across the top--no masthead, no date, no anything except these words: America 2.0.
That's what Hope is. That's why his approval rating has been as high as 82% and why more that 3/4 of our country right now is optimistic about the future of the nation despite the sorry state of just about everything.
Another fake news program, The Daily Show, pointed out with tongue in cheek last night that Obama's inaugural address and Bush's second one shared some very distinct similarities:
JON: White House Bureau Chief Jason Jones was in Washington. Jason! Obama's speech today.
JASON: Jon, his speech was incredible. Typical Obama: inspiring rhetoric.
OBAMA: This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.
JASON: Mixed with square-jawed determination.
OBAMA: For those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents: you cannot outlast us and we will defeat you.
JASON: Mmm Hmm. And it's what our country desperately needs at this time.
JON: But, I have to say, Jason: Our nation's relationship to the Almighty, a message for our enemies...isn't that...Bush?
JASON: What? No, no, no. I'm not following you here. This president had a new message for a new day.
OBAMA: We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.
JASON: There you go: pride of country, straight from the tap! Ha? A real self-esteem booster.
JON: But if I may: (in a mock-Bush voice) We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. Heh heh heh.
JASON: Whoa whoa whoa! Jon, the cowboy days are over. My God, when I even hear that, it makes me want to take off my shoe and just jam it down your--
JON: Right. But those aren't Bush's words! I'm just reading the Obama quote you just played for me; I just did it in Bush's voice. It's the same rhetoric.
JASON: You're the same rhetoric.
JON: But watch this:
BUSH: Freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God.
OBAMA: ..the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free.
BUSH: We will work with our friends and allies across the world to defend our way of life.
OBAMA: We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.
BUSH: We will usher in a new era of enhanced prosperity and peace.
OBAMA: America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
BUSH: Did our generation advance the cause of freedom?
OBAMA: We carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
JASON: Why are you doing this?
JON: I don't know! It's all I know! What am I supposed to do?
JASON: It's Hope Day One!
JON: I know! I don't like it either!
JASON: I know.
JON: I don't like doing this either!
JASON: It's like: why is cheese delicious on Italian food, but when you melt it on Chinese food it's disgusting? I don't know! Honestly Jon, I guess that it's just when Obama says this stuff I don't think he really means it. And that gives me Hope. Can I go back to the party now?
JON: Yes you can.
Yes, some of these are the same words. But "this president had a new message for a new day," as Jason Jones said. How is that possible? It may not have been the point that Jon Stewart was intending, but I found in that montage additional evidence of what I was already thinking. Bush could say these things and everyone listening could see that he was full of crap, that he was simply mouthing the platitudes of this party and the neocons. Contrary to what Jones says at the end, when Obama says these things, I do believe him. I believe that he will follow through. I believe that he understands the consequences of his actions. I believe that he knows that he cannot do things unilaterally. I believe that he will always act in the best interest of America, and that is something I never believed about George W. Bush.
If any other president since Kennedy had said this:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
he would not have been received so warmly and enthusiastically. And Kennedy, too, had as many enemies as friends.
What Obama has the opportunity to accomplish is unprecedented in the history of our nation precisely because Barack Hussein Obama himself is unprecedented in the history of our nation. He is not merely a master politician, schooled on the streets of Chicago and tested against the toughest political machine ever created; he is a true leader. The key to being a great leader, often, is being the right person in the right job at the right time, and Barack Obama appears to be that person. His even temperament, so thoroughly chronicled already, is exactly what this country needs to weather its myriad Bush-created crises. The key to being a great leader is to be a good listener; Obama is proving that he does listen, even to former adversaries. The key to being a great leader is not to be True Believer; our last president was a True Believer and look where that got us. Obama is a practical man. If he is a True Believer in anything, it is his family and the United States of America. I doubt that anything else at all is too sacred to be placed on the table.
Some of us may not like that about him. But I say hallelujah. Our partisan biases and petty bickering and personal ambitions have blinded us for far too long to what is important here: making our country work. And I am a True Believer in that. I believe that Obama has the best shot ever at succeeding at it. I don't even believe in God, but I'm praying for him.