Thursday, January 22, 2009

On the Words of "The Speech"

January 20, 2009
A black hand rests lightly on Lincoln's bible.

The chief justice stumbles over the word "faithfully."

A bright sun fails to bring warmth to the bitingly cold day.

An enormous crowd of nearly two million citizens descends onto the capital, chilled by the weather and warmed by the belief that they were witnesses to history.

A day filled with startling moments.

The Bright Promise
A man born into power and privilege peacefully handed the position of president to a man who hails from the south side of Chicago by way of Kansas, Hawaii and Kenya.

The new president stood tall.

The crowd cheered.

The market swooned.

The former vice president left his position as a man as crippled as the economy.

A day of contrasts in a country full of contradictions.

This Moment in History
A crisp, cold, bright day, like many other inaugural days. The crowd gathered, but never such a crowd like this. During a time of debate and discussion about the historical legacy of the Bush years, nearly two million people stepped outside of their ordinary life and swarmed the capital to participate in history, to bear witness to a shining moment.

In tone, the gathering at the capital was reminiscent of the election night party last November in Grant Park. Crowds of people - happy - thrilled - joyful - came together to celebrate the great American tradition, the transfer of power from one president to the next. It was a day for cheers, for smiles; for some, I'm sure, it signified the arrival of doom. A black man, a Democrat, is now our president. And for others, true despair...

A White Sox fan is in the House.

But not just any White Sox fan. A Harvard educated community organizer. And his inaugural speech was one of the most anticipated speeches in recent memory.

The Inaugural Speech
The new president is famous because of his skill with words; the nation wanted to know how he would use words to frame his thoughts around this moment. Millions of people watched on TV, listened on the radio, witnessed it in person in the nation's capital.

To many, his inaugural speech did not hit it out of the park. Safire felt it lacked a strong theme. The New Republic called it a "disappointing hodgepodge." NY Times writer Roger Cohen was "stirred but not transported."

I saw a different speech. President Obama took the oath of office at a watershed moment in our nation's history, and I saw him give a great speech that painted a vivid picture of where we are right now. His speech included images of slavery ("the lash of the whip"), a tribute to our soldiers who were once and are today at war and a reference to a Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers musical ("pick yourself up, dust yourself off...")

It was American to the core.

Good-Bye to All That
It was remarkable also for its stinging repudiation of the Bush regime:


"...We are ready to lead once more."

"...Our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause..."

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works..."

"...We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

In this speech, President Obama clearly and forcefully stated a farewell to Reaganomics - after 30 years, it has become clear that the rising tide lifted only the prosperous already in the boats. He clearly and forcefully departed from the Bush era tactics of shredding the constitution in order to protect it.

A Revolutionary Influence
Obama comes to Washington from the land of Lincoln. And Lincoln is clearly an influence on our new president. But in ending his speech, he reached further back into our history, reminding us of words used by a man noted, not for words, but for his actions.

George Washington was the "father of our nation," a general who led our troops into battle during the Revolutionary War. He was the first president of our emerging democracy. As one of our Founding Fathers, his most revolutionary action was the simple act of leaving the position of president after two terms, ushering in the remarkable American tradition we witnessed on Tuesday, the peaceful inauguration of a new leader, a tradition that remains strong and vital more than 200 years later.

Washington was also a slave owner. He inhabited a world built by slave labor. And today, Michelle, Malia and Sasha Obama, the descendants of slaves, live in the White House.

We witnessed more than the peaceful transference of power on Inauguration Day.

The March Continues
In the audience on Tuesday were people like U.S. Representative John Lewis, who fought alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the battle for civil rights. In the audience were children who do not know that once in this country, a black boy could be murdered for smiling at a white girl. In the audience were people who cried because a day had come they never thought they would see, a day when a leader was judged for the content of his ideas, not the color of his skin.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 was a day when we came closer to realizing the "self-evident truth" that all are created equal in America.

"The Ground Has Shifted Beneath Them"
And in his speech, President Obama expressed an ideology that is as old as our nation. The beacon of liberty cannot shine when it subverts its values through the use of torture and gulags. Our allegiance to the "ideals of our forbearers" is the source of our strength. A long time ago, some brave and fearless men decided to change how citizens were ruled - and American democracy has done much to influence and change the world for the better.

The Bush era exposed the flaws of our system. The ship needs to be righted. We need to get back on course. We can and should continue to strive to be that "shining city on a hill."

And on Tuesday, President Obama laid the burden of bearing the responsibility for our collective success squarely on the shoulders of everyone.

Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

1 comment:

Chip Williams said...

This is a wonderful analysis of his speech and it's historical significance. I love your opening. I think it captures the country's sentiments during these difficult times.