January 20, 2009: the swearing in of America's 44th president, Barack Obama.
I watched it quietly
here in Vermont —the first state in the union to declare for Obama back on that glorious election night in November, as most Vermonters will tell you with modest pride. (Quietly, that is, except when singing. Above, standing for The Star-Spangled Banner, facing the television in a small inn. Read on.)
The tone of the day couldn't have been more unlike the deep depression that followed the last two inaugurals for me (in 2004 I actually wore a black armband for several days after the election). And for me personally it couldn't have been more different from the inauguration sixteen years ago (if you want a hint as to why, see Vanity Fair's online "Catching Up with the Clinton Crowd" a kind of 'where are they now?' update on Friends of Bill… your dragon's on page 13 of the slide show).
Because David and I don't have a TV, we drove to Saxtons River, population 541. We don't actually live in Saxtons River, but our phone number has a Saxtons River exchange, and, at three miles from our hilltop, it's the closest place to go when we run out of milk or need to drop a Netflix at the P.O.
It was also the nearest place to find a TV and a group we could be sure would be congenial. Though we're not habitues, rumor had it that innkeeper Tim Clark of the Inn at Saxtons River was an extremely nice man, said to be most welcoming towards the community. The blackboard set on the downstairs porch backed this up : Join us! it said, WATCH INAUGURATION HERE!
The bar (pictured right), where the TV is, isn't large. By 11:15 the room was full. There, with neighbors I mostly didn't know yet, and my partner of the last seven years, David Koff, I watched. As millions of others watched from their corners of the world, or crowded next to each other in the bone-chilling cold in Washington DC (where I had stood on a far warmer inauguration day in 1993, watching Bill Clinton get sworn in).
And I had the sense that those great creaking cogs on which this world's better ways rest,
wheels and gears which had rusted and ground to a terrible halt and then slowly reversed over the last eight years, were moving forward again. Moment by moment, word by word, the inauguration lubricated the machinery, and the corrosion fell away. Like many, I wept in wonder.
I wept when Aretha, in her goofy, wonderful hat (which actually has its own fan club on Facebook!), sang.
I wept when the quartet with Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman played. (If you haven't seen In the Fiddler's House, the documentary in which Perlman travels to Poland in search of the roots of klezmer music, please see it now — it is tragic, triumphant, funny and just so worth seeing).
I wept when Elizabeth Alexander
read her Inaugural Poem, Praise Song for the Day (a lot of
mean-spirited criticism is surfacing on the Net about it. People, people! It's almost impossible to write a truly great poem for such an occasion, since as anyone who's actually written poetry knows how much it resists appearing on demand or request for particular occasions; it's a form that is more comfortable germinating itself. What Alexander did with this imperfect source for poetry seems to me remarkable:
uplifting, accessible, appropriate. A fine and cogent post by Sharani, a librarian, and Shri Chinmoy devotee, about the poem and Alexander's other work, is here ). And of course, I wept, and laughed at the same time, delightedly, through Reverend Lowery's benediction — "When the red man, can get ahead, man," is just my kind of rhyme.
But most of all, I wept as our now-President Obama spoke.
Above, as we saw him on the screen.
"The arc of the moral universe is long ," Martin Luther King, Jr told us just four days before his death in 1968, "but it bends toward justice." Obama, then senator, quoted those prescient words last April, on the 40th anniversary of King's
King used this phrase many times, including in what would turn out to be the last speech of his life. But during his lifetime, many were not ready or able to hear his words. Even those who did couldn't have imagined the future we glimpsed today. Nor could anyone have imagined how far we still had to go, or the strange twists the road would take, for us to get here. Here being the inauguration of Barack Obama.
This election, more than any other in my lifetime, seems to me to have renewed our contract with hope. It also renews our connection with what President — yes, President! — Obama called "our better history."
So rich, rounded, resonant and far-reaching was President Obama's speech, one could write an essay on every sentence. I'm sure it will be parsed for meaning, reference, and rhetoric for decades to come. What I want to talk about here is this idea of "better history."
America's history, our history, does contain a better and a worse. We have always lived at the extremes of both.
All of us, individually and as nations, have a best and worst self from which we can, and do, choose to act, in small matters and large. Maybe this is especially true in America, not only because of our position of power, but because we are one of the most deliberately created nations in the world. We can't afford to ignore either our better or worse: we're made up of both, and must learn from both.
But we must choose, ultimately, to emphasize and live by the lights of one or the other.
By choosing our better history, we chose not the mindless arrogance that allowed colonizers to build America on land already inhabited by its native people. Instead, we chose the thoughtful, idealistic America that existed in direct contradiction to this theft by the Europeans. We chose the America that in its primal document articulated that we "held self-evident" the radical proposition that all are "created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and Happiness."
By choosing our better history, we chose not the America which could articulate such visionary words at the very time it prospered on the commerce, ownership, exploitation and oppression of enslaved human beings, men, women and children kidnapped from their native land and schooled against insurrection by the whip, the brand, and the chain. Instead, we chose the America which later went to war with itself over this fatally flawed inconsistency, paying the most terrible price but thereby bringing itself into alignment with its own ideals and winning freedom — not only the enslaved but for the enslavers, too.
By choosing our better history, we chose not the America which ran internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. We chose not the America which ran Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and legitimized torture there and elsewhere. Instead, we chose the America which, with its allies, liberated Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and Buchenwald.
I wept, as perhaps you did, in both joyful and sorrowing disbelief. The joy: amazement, thankfulness, relief, nascent hope. The sorrow: all it taken to get Barack
Obama where he is, and, even more so, to get us, as a country, to where we
could put him where he is.
There are many heroes and heroines, going back as far as this country's memory can hold, whom we might rightfully credit with taking us, step by incremental step, to this day.
But strangely, strangely, I believe, and I want to credit, the one person (save, perhaps, Barack Obama himself) who, though certainly not heroic, did more than anything to get him in office: George W. Bush.
From the moment George W. Bush stole the first election (and we let him! I don't know what we could have done differently, but, still, we let him!), he presided over the step-by-step dismantling of everything that is good about America, virtually all that belongs on the "best" side of history's ledger. He's left us a disastrous legacy on every front : we're poorer, less free, and more imperiled in a world approaching environmental meltdown, peopled by nations who had begun to hate and feel contempt for us, and rightfully so.
Yet Bush (albeit with as much ignorance about the consequences of his actions as he has always shown) propelled us forcefully towards where we are today.
See, I think most of us stick to the known, however bad it is, rather
than risk change. Everyone likes the outcome of positive change. But that outcome, and that it will be positive, is never certain on the front end. And almost no one likes
the process of changing: not only is outcome not a sure thing, but at least temporary destabilization is almost certain. Change asks us to risk chaos and maybe hardship, for
an unknown outcome. Better the devil that you know, as the saying goes. Who, for example, would choose the huge disruption of leaving their homes and possessions to become a refugee
unless they were quite sure they were about to be slaughtered or flooded? 'Pretty sure' isn't usually enough: as witness those who, rather than disrupt their lives by moving, lose them by murder or drowning.
Looked at this way, it becomes easier to see why change, even when its the potential pay-off is vast, frightens the wits out of most of us. Yeah, sure it could be better, we human beings seem to say reflexively, until we are completely backed into a corner — but it could also be worse. Couldn't it? Much worse?
Well, George Bush backed us into one hell of a corner. It's hard to imagine anyone who could have done so more impeccably. Consider his perfect storm of
characteristics: arrogance, ignorance, carelessness, a heedless and
unthinking disregard for any point of view but his own, xenophobia,
incompetence, being just plain not-very-bright, and a fatal blindness
to the consequences of his actions, for starters. There are plenty of people who
have these characteristics, true. But can you think of anyone else who,
despite being wholly lacking in any credentials or experience
which might befit the nation's highest office was also A) wealthy, B) willing and C) dynastically positioned to become president?
Who else but George Bush could have caused so much suffering, could have tipped the scales so forcefully that even change —- chaos, unknown outcome and all — looked much, much better than status quo? Who else could have caused us to lose so much that we feared that if we did not change course drastically, we might lose everything?
We will be reckoning the cost of George
Bush's legacy for a long time. Some of us have already paid with our
lives, or the lives of those we loved. Some have paid with their homes,
or their once-secure retirements. Our nation's level of debt is a toxic, Katrina-high flood, and only the richest of the rich remain truly dry.
Because of the last eight years, our world is less safe — for
Americans or anyone else — and our water and air more imperiled than
Yet only a series of crises as deep and prolonged as those
George Bush wrought while in office could have forced the
nationwide self-confrontation it took to bring us to today. Could anything less have made us grow, and grow up, so profoundly? To overcome such ancient distrust and hatreds that would almost certainly have barred Barack Obama from winning an American presidential election at any other time?
Because George Bush broke so grossly with our "better history" , instead embracing our worst — by making us, for instance, a covertly governed nation condoning wire-tapping and torture, mocking science and rationality in the name of God, unloosing witch-hunts or firings of those who disagreed publicly with his and Cheney's regime's decisions, feeding fear, quashing hope, inflicting blow after blow of profound unfreedom — by turning his back on our better history so unwaveringly, George Bush finally helped us, at last, to return to it.
With Obama's inauguration, America finally yanked up hard on the racism that's poisoned our country's roots since its inception. Of course, hatred and racism are not weeded out so with a single yank, no matter how dramatic. Yet, wonder of wonders, when it came down to it, we elected the most qualified person for the job: despite the fact that he happened to be a black man — more truthfully, a mixed-race man. (Surely most of us over at least 50 are still murmuring to ourselves and each other in wonder, "Did you ever think you'd live to see the day when — ?" )
When it came down to it, we overcame a campaign of perception, slander, innuendo, and over untruth to vote as we did. For this most qualified person could easily have been defeated, in less desperate times, simply by having a foreign-sounding last name that is one letter away from being the first name of America's most widely known, hated and feared enemy.
When it came down to it, we also overcame, in our vote, our longtime national suspicion of intelligent, complex thinkers as over-educated, impractical, whiny, politically correct eggheads (remember how recently John Kerry's "nuanced thinking" was derided?). Instead, when we chose Barack Obama, we chose someone genuinely well-educated, deeply thoughtful, unwilling to pander to us by speaking simplistically or playing to the old prejudices and their false verities.
We chose someone evidently personally developed enough to know that the old them-and-us ways of looking at the world no longer suffice. Someone articulate, smart, and both impassioned and cool headed enough to raise a clarion call to another, radically different way of seeing and living in the world.
I wrote the first draft of this post on the evening of the Inauguration. I noted "it's late now, though the parties in Washington are still going on. I could go on, too, now — there's much more I'd like to say about today. About all it called up for me personally (at Bill Clinton's first presidential inauguration, 16 years ago, I did my share of dancing until my feet hurt at inaugural balls — but that's another story). About, also, teaching in Little Rock last week and the wild-ass gorgeous fearless courage of the little girl who offered to draw a bison — but, that too is another story. I could certainly make all these improbable skeins all wrap together with the inaugural and my thoughts about it (something I love doing as a writer, and have already done in my mind).
"But. It is late, I have a cold and one arm in a sling and a very sore shoulder, plus I'm trying to learn how to write shorter posts."
Now it's the next night. Everything above is still true. Once again my shoulder is screaming in pain at its overuse, and I have let it, again, get shockingly late.
So I will leave you with this: as I sat in the bar at the inn and watched on the television screen the image of that Army green helicopter holding George and Laura Bush rise above Washington and leave for Andrews Air Force Base, as I breathed out in relief, as millions surely did, also probably shaking their heads as I did mine, at the senseless damage inflicted, the waste, waste, waste… as I did all this, I also found myself thinking, to my own vast surprise, "Thank you.
"You may not know you did it, Mr. Bush. And you certainly didn't intend to do it. You have much, much to be ashamed of and to answer for, and perhaps you'll never do either, or if you'll ever even understand the damage you did, the evil you set loose in the world and why you leave the office disgraced. And no, I do not believe, as you say you do, that history will absolve you.
"But you left us Barack Obama. Thank you. Thank you for this gift."