Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I watched this morning teary-eyed as Barack Obama took the oath of office, feeling a surge of pride in my country, that despite seemingly deep political and cultural rifts, we can rally together as a nation to witness a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Recent events in other parts of the world underscore just how precious and fragile that is. This is easily the most anticipated and celebrated inauguration of my lifetime.

My idiosyncratic thoughts and highlights:

Rick Warren's invocation.
I listened openly, and I found it gracious and hitting the right notes for the occasion.
"Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all.
When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.
And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.
Help us to share, to serve and to seek the common good of all.
May all people of good will today join together to work for a more just, a more healthy and a more prosperous nation and a peaceful planet."
I can say "amen" to all of that.
It felt a bit overly religious for an ecumenical occasion to recite the Lord's Prayer. (And I couldn't help but notice that Warren "trespasses". I was surprised to learn last year at a wedding of friends that some people forgive "debts" rather than "trespasses". The debt crowd get by with a heap fewer syllables, leaving us trespassers behind in a unison recitation.)

Air and Simple Gifts.
What a beautiful piece, and how appropriate on so many levels. Composed by American composer John Williams, incorporating the famous Shaker hymn and harkening to another great American composer Aaron Copland. (I read later that a Copland piece was meant to be performed at Eisenhower's inauguration, but was dropped because some thought Copland was too liberal and might be a communist sympathizer. So much the better to correct that mistake and honor him today.) I love that our inauguration features a classical quartet. And what great symbolism in the composition of that quartet: a Jewish Israeli-American, a French-born Chinese-American, a black man from Chicago, and a woman from Venezuela, all coming together to make great music. What a great foreshadowing of a theme of Obama's speech.

The Oath.
"I, Barack Hussein Obama, …" No apologies or hiding his middle name. Hussein loud and clear. As it should be.

The Chief Justice is nervous. He's rushing, getting the words in the wrong order (as Ann Althouse cracked, so much for the CJ being a strict textualist), and they're tripping over each other. It reminded me of Charles and Diana's wedding, where she was nervous and got his middle names muddled. (Funny, I later read Andrew Sullivan had the same thought.)

The Speech.

"Forty-four Americans have now taken the Presidential oath." Hate to cavil, but while Obama is the 44th president, he's only the 43rd person to hold the office, as Grover Cleveland counted twice with Benjamin Harrison in between.

"On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." This man promises to rise above the partisan ratrace. That's why I voted for him.

"... in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things" Another quibble, but this seems a gratuitous reference, as his point doesn't really fit with the context of the famous passage from Corinthians.

I'm loving the uplifting appeals to our great history combined with the challenge to live up to our promise.

"We will restore science to its rightful place…" Can I get an "amen"? Amen!

"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.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.
But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.
The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good."

Brilliant stuff. He's articulating a philosophy that recognizes both the promises and the pitfalls of government and of the market, moving beyond and above stale debates and false dichotomies of "pro-big-government" vs "pro-market".

"As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Amen!

"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers." My God, did he include "nonbelievers"? Yes he did! He could easily have left that out. But this man says what is right, without regard to whether it's popular or easy. I love that about him.

"We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." … To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." This strikes just the right notes of letting the world know we know the difference between reasonable Muslims and Islamist nutjobs, and we won't take crap from the latter.

"To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Robert Mugabe, we're looking at you.

"Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, 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. This is the price and the promise of citizenship." It's not "change versus traditional values", it's "change AND traditional values". His call to responsibility and service is inspiring.

His close was brilliant, recalling Washington at Valley Forge, acknowledging hard times ahead, while giving us inspiration to meet the challenge, calling us to our better selves.

I am full of hope for the four years ahead.

1 comment:

Wiredgoose said...

Hi Tom.
I agree with your analysis, except for one point: isn't the reference to the clenched fist more about Putin than Mugabe? Mugabe is history, there's no way he will be shaking hands with any civilised leader (unless (a) there is a God (a civilised leader), and (b) he repents in large measure before he goes and meets said God). But with journalists and human rights lawyers being assasinated in Russia, and Putin clingign to power via the prime minister's office, my bets are that Obama was thinking more Moscow than Harare.

On another note, I'm sadly more hopeful than optimistic about Obama's prospects for leading America and the Western World back to economic stability. He sets the perfect tone, but the challenges before him are almost unsurmountable. My joy at Tuesday's events diminished yesterday when I read the following from an Irish economist.

McWilliams has long predicted the current economic woes Ireland faces, which are very similar to those in the US. Have a read:

Here's to optimism though, we need all we can get.

- Eoin aka Wiredgoose.