Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inaugural Address

It was a somber speech. Barack Hussein Obama kept his feet firmly grounded on reality but also gazed boldly heavenward when he needed to. But as the inaugural address progressed, I began to get tense. Along with the passionate throng that had gathered at the Mall, we were all waiting for an excuse to burst into wild applause. But the easy applause lines didn’t come. The address was more for the head than the heart, and that took many of us by surprise.

Ah, surprise. We know that the 44th president is a skillful writer but who would have guessed that he also has a keen sense of suspense? While we were expecting Lincoln, he gave us Washington. Perhaps Barack Obama will one day surprise us with a thriller.

And yet, and yet … as the words began to sink in, not during their masterful delivery but afterwards, they gained in stature. Obama was wise not to attempt an address for the ages. We wanted to soar on the wings of his rhetoric but he reminded us that before we could soar, we had to let go of petty grievances and childish things. We wanted poetry but he gave us tough prose that, on reflection, appeared both sturdy and lyrical.

“We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” Not exactly Kennedy but the austere words point to the new direction we must travel to thrive as a nation. “Greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” Again, not much originality there but in these tough times, brought about by runaway greed and unabashed narcissism, we needed the reminder just the same. "Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."

“We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost … we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.” Let's hope that he can pull it off, for without overhauling our current educational system and making science and technology the centerpieces of the new system, America's future is likely to be bleak.

The most emotional moment in the speech came for me when Obama said, “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed – why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.” Echoes of Martin Luther King and a sense that his “Dream” may come true at last.

Obama identified the values on which our success depends – honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism. One gets an earful of these values at any political gathering; what made Obama’s list stand out was the inclusion of one that we rarely hear: curiosity. Obama’s predecessor was know for his lack of it, which probably contributed most to his disastrous eight years, and so its inclusion was bracing as well as instructive.

The inaugural address scored a significant first: the use of the word Muslim. “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 non-believers … To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect …” Muslims are no longer strangers in America or to America. They are as much a contributor to the nation's patchwork heritage as any other. And certainly a genuine reaching out to the Muslim world will be good for America, Muslims and the world.

If there is one snippet from Obama's address that may be quoted years from now (as "With malice toward none ..." for Lincoln, "The only thing we have to fear ..." for Roosevelt, "Ask not ..." for Kennedy), it will probably be this: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."

Tomorrow the inaugural address will recede into the background. Tomorrow we will begin focusing on how Obama goes about changing America, and the world, for the better. The 44th president gave us a speech of substance to prepare us for the difficult choices ahead, without diminishing the goodwill we have for him. A wise president indeed.

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