Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 January 2009

A Day to Cherish

By now the Inauguration is old news. But it’s not for those who were there. Our step will be lighter and our world brighter for a few days yet. As long as we live, we’ll cherish the memories.

My wife and I don’t like crowds, and she hates the cold. Yet there we were, in temperatures in the low twenties, standing in a crowd in a frigid breeze. We enjoyed every minute.

There were no choirs of angels, but it was a gloriously sunny day. To minimize our time on sardine-packed subways, we walked across the Arlington Bridge. The sun gleamed on the Capitol and the monuments, making the District look like one of our “alabaster cities” from “America the Beautiful.”

As President Obama (God, that sounds good!) took the oath of office, we were about a mile away. The Lincoln Memorial was at our back, and the Reflecting Pool on our left, with the Vietnam War Memorial beyond it.

Between us and the President, about half way, stood the Washington Monument. That’s where the “National Mall” ends according to our maps. In that closer half, aerial images showed the crowd densely packed, like blades of grass. Between the Monument and us, the crowd was sparser, mostly clustered around the jumbotrons, with some breathing room.

Despite a time lag, the sound and video were excellent, and the mood was joyous. We heard sustained applause when Colin Powell and Bill and Hillary appeared, and a surprisingly warm response for Al Gore. In deep basso, a man behind me intoned, “They stole it from ya, Al!”

Dick Cheney appeared in a wheelchair, and we heard isolated laughter and a few catcalls. Even though I thought he’d suffered a stroke, not just a strained back, I couldn’t find any sympathy in my heart for him. Neither, apparently, could the crowd. The Washington Post’s “Express” Inauguration Supplement summed up the mood by quoting a blogger’s view of Cheney:
“[H]is deal with the devil is coming due, and he is degenerating into his true form, gollum, that he will inhabit once his power is revoked.”
For those of us old enough to remember the movie, he looked a lot like Dr. Strangelove.

There were also a few jeers and boos for Dubya. They came once when he appeared, shifty-eyed, in the entry way, and later when he squirmed under the new President’s not-so-veiled criticism.

But mostly the crowd stood mute for Dubya. The people around us were like watchers at a horror film, waiting tensely to see whether the monster would rise again or subside at last. The family in front of us wouldn’t relax until they saw Dubya’s helicopter fade out of sight.

Barack, Michelle and the First Kids of course evoked the greatest joy. The roar was deafening when Barack became president, and again when he impliedly criticized Dubya. After he completed his oath, people kissed each other, and strangers hugged or shook hands. The long nightmare was over.

After the speeches and final benediction, the crowd around us began to disperse, and everyone fell to taking pictures. My mind wandered toward coronations in English and French history. Then power passed with the life of monarchs and the cry, “The King is dead! Long Live the King!”

Unlike England and India (among others), we have no way to remove a leader who has lost the people’s confidence. So, like subjects in a monarchy, we have to wait to replace bad with good. We had to wait only four years, not a lifetime. But sometimes an eyeblink in history can seem an eternity.

When I was young, “Forty Miles of Bad Road” was a popular country-and-western song. What we had just endured was similar: forty years of bad rule. Except for the brief interludes of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton’s first term, those years were times of selfishness, certitude, division, arrogance and greed.

Something evil—Nixon’s Southern Strategy—had kicked the whole thing off, putting a bent demagogue in our highest office. Tolerating intolerance is bad enough. Exploiting and fostering it to win elections is vile. Reagan also did it, and so did Dubya’s father. Even Hillary and Bill put a toe in the cesspool during their primary campaign.

Now that era seems gone forever. You could see it in the crowd, which where we stood was more than half white. You could see it in Dubya’s face. Even with his dim intellect, he could understand the meaning of the crowd’s number. Estimates put it between 1.8 and 2 million people, eighteen to twenty times the turnout for Dubya’s second inaugural—the only time he won fairly.

Even the dumbest politicians can count. So we all can hope that things like the Willie Horton ad, the demonization of Reverend Wright, and all the rest are gone forever. From now on, if campaigners seek dirt, it will have to be in personal behavior, not people’s genes or remote associations. In the unlikely event that Barack Obama does nothing else of note during his presidency, he may have drained that cesspool.

Of course we expect him to do much, much more. He’s got the best combination of brains, judgment, vision, and character of any president in my lifetime, bar none. But on that glorious day, it was enough to end an awful era, one that began with racism and one unnecessary war and ended with more racism, another unnecessary war, and universal belief in economic fairy tales.

With the ceremony and the speeches over, my wife and I turned to pay obeisance to Lincoln. We read the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural, engraved on the Memorial’s walls. Once again, we marveled at Lincoln’s uncanny ability to see things just as they were, while reminding everyone brilliantly how they ought to be.

After forty years of darkness and division, we now have another man with those same abilities in the White House.

That happy comparison filled my soul. We glanced at Lincoln for the last time, turning to cross the bridge and pay respects to my own relatives at Arlington Cemetery. As we left, I thought I saw Lincoln smile.

P.S. The Washington Post’s “Express” Inaugural Supplement also quoted one Larkin Harris as follows:
“For the past eight years, I would have wanted to be president for one reason: I think that I would have done a better job than the man in charge. Now that our country is being led by President Obama, I would respectfully decline the post.”
I felt much that same way. In the era of good leadership that has now begun, I expect to have much less to say. So readers should not be disappointed if new posts henceforth appear on this blog only once every week or two. Like the other two million people on the (extended) Mall and most of the rest of the world, I will sleep sounder at night—and produce fewer cries in the wilderness— knowing we have a president who is up to the job.


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