121. Jon Carroll - Obamas' Inauguration
This is the best summing up
"I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing."
- Abraham Lincoln, 1862
It was great to see Aretha wear the Hat. The Hat said that this really was change we could believe in. There is a cultural change in the White House, and a cultural change in the nation, and I have no idea what it's going to look like, but it's going to include the Hat, and all the ladies who wear hats like that on Sundays. They are inside the gates now and walking down the corridors of power, and if you give them sass, it will be at your peril.
The Hat almost made up for all the media people asking any black person they could find, "Did you ever think you'd see this day?" I wanted just one to say, "Oh sure, I knew this was coming. Been expecting it for years. Not a surprise. Did love the hat, though. God bless."
We may not be that bright, but we do get that having an African American president is, you know, different. It's a day not many of us thought we'd live to see. Can we accept that as a given and move on?
And I did love the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery schooling any pastor who might be paying attention on how it's done in the Year of the Hat. Lowery, a Methodist minister, 76 years old, a leader of the Montgomery bus boycott and a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr., chose the first verse of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" (sometimes called "the Negro national anthem") as the opening of his benediction - "God of our weary years, God of our silent tears" - and then went on a tear of a mini-sermon for the assembled millions, referring, by my count, to four Old Testament prophets before evoking Micah: "Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen and say amen."
And crowd said "Amen" and Barack Obama said "Amen," and we had a new president and a new lesson: Eloquence is the best revenge. Nonviolence is such a great tool.
As celebratory as the day was, though, the new president chose to give a serious, even somber, speech. Watching on television, I felt an underlying unease or sadness long before the oath was given. I saw Dianne Feinstein step to the podium, and I immediately flashed back to the first time I ever saw her before a bank of microphones. Here's what she said then: "As president of the Board of Supervisors, it's my duty to make this announcement: Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed."
That feeling of dread mingled with my other emotions the rest of the day. Like many people, I have thought frequently about the history of violence against black leaders in this country. I have feared for Barack Obama; I still do. We are prisoners of history, and even as Obama was asking us "to choose our better history," I was still haunted by our other history, and by the people who chose it, who will choose it.
It is one of Obama's great strengths, I think, that he is also aware of the savagery that this country has produced, and he chooses not to dwell on it. What he is dealing with is too vast for malicious dealing. This is likely to irritate a lot of people, because politics is a blood sport, and we like to see our enemies confounded and shamed. When Dick Cheney rolled out on the podium looking even more than usual like Dr. Strangelove, I have to say I was cheered.
It may be that Obama suppressed a grin as well. He is not a man insensitive to nuance or symbolism. He was surprisingly blunt about the Bush-Cheney administration in his speech: "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
But probably Obama did not take time to be amused by Cheney's Kubrickian plight. The former vice president and his cronies have had their day, and they disappear into the rearview mirror looking ever more like opera buffa characters. Now Obama has to deal with rapacious banks, recalcitrant Israelis, corrupt oil ministers, surly legislators, two semi-imaginary senators - and those are just his allies. His enemies? Numberless. He has problems without solutions, real or imagined; he has chaos in his own government and disorder abroad.
And so he asked for our help, which is what you do in a democracy when you can't see your way out of a dark room. Maybe someone out there knows where the switch is - or maybe we all just have flashlights that we are once more willing to use.
The inaugural speech confirmed it - Barack Obama is like a train coming down the track, and you better get on board or get out of the way.
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This article appeared on page C - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle