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

Let the New Century Begin

Inaugurations can be deceiving.

I have in front of me a copy of The New York Times the day after George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001. It’s long enough ago that some 20 million young Americans old enough to think for themselves have no living memory of Bill Clinton, or Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court’s 21 st century Dred Scott. And long enough ago, though it doesn’t seem that long, that two recessions, three wars (not counting Israel’s three), the needless killing of hundreds of thousands of people and the reduction to refugee status of 4 million more took place on the watch of a president who told Bob Woodward in 2002, “There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace.”

Here was the headline over six columns in that 2001 Times: “Bush, taking office, calls for civility, compassion and ‘nation of character.’” A sub-headline: “Unity is a theme - In inaugural speech, he asks citizens to seek ‘a common good.’” And there was this in that speech, first of so many stabs at language as a parody of truth: “We must show courage in a time of blessing, by confronting problems instead of passing them on to future generations,” and something about “uncounted, unhonored acts of decency which give direction to our freedom.”


Feel free not to repress the urge to laugh, though it shouldn’t be a happy laugh. We’ve been learning a few things about the uncounted acts of this administration, and we’ll learn many more in the years ahead - not honorable and decent but criminal and base. Moving on is fine, and Tuesday we finally will. But as long as George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales and lesser-known but equally culpable members of that brutal administration remain free of charges, the country is implicitly justifying their conduct and dismissing their crimes. The country needs detox. Electing Barack Obama is a start. It should take care of the governance and legitimate leadership that’s been absent for eight years. But Obama is no judge. For that, the country needs a truth commission.

If inaugurations can be deceiving, expectations can be deceived. But two things strike me as genuinely refreshing about Obama. By far the most important is the weight he gives words. It’s a radical departure from recent presidents (“sometimes you misunderestimated me,” Bush was telling reporters at his final press conference without irony). But it’s also squarely part of the tradition of the greatest presidents. Clinton could give a speech, so could Ronald Reagan. But words were tactical games to Clinton’s politics. Ronald Reagan just had good speechwriters whose best lines (“city upon a hill,” “touch the face of God”) were stolen from others. Bush just cheapened the value of words (“freedom,” “democracy,” “responsibility”), making them the rhetorical equivalent of financial stocks: The ideas soared with self-importance only to implode from the nothingness at their core.

Obama, that rarity among presidents who like to write their own words, is the first since John Kennedy, and only the fourth since the two Roosevelts, who knows how words have the power to shape American identity and destiny equally—how words can be the bridge between the ideal and the concrete. The historian Dumas Malone wrote of how Thomas Jefferson, during the Revolution, “revealed his unusual power of political expression and gradually became—unconsciously, I believe—a symbol of ideas which inspired hope among the inarticulate as well as the enlightened.” The same words apply to Obama.

The second striking thing about Obama is that he is the most representative of all American presidents. More representative than Washington? Jefferson? FDR? Actually, especially so. Patricians were not known for the diversity of their background. If a president is to reflect the people he represents, none has ever had Obama’s combination—of races, of economic and geographic circumstances, of intellectual prowess, of worldliness. That may not mean anything. The Congress just seated includes 95 women (a record), 42 blacks (just one in the Senate), 31 Hispanics (a record) and 11 Asians (a record). It also includes 16 doctors, four ministers, five accountants, three organic farmers, three ranchers, a cosmetic saleswoman, a casino dealer, a night watchman, a tollbooth collector, a shellfish specialist and an NFL football player, among others. It may be the most representative in the country’s history. It doesn’t mean it’ll be productive. The new Congress’ average age, at 63.1, among the highest ever, portends conservatism, not daring.

Voters’ assumptions are nothing to brag about, either. In 1968, 72 percent of Americans believed Richard Nixon was a man of “high integrity,” almost the same number who thought blacks were “asking for more than they are ready for” (according to a Harris poll at the time). That large majority of Americans proved absurdly wrong on both counts, proving only that hope and prejudice are the inner twins of every prediction. There’s both with Obama’s inauguration, though I doubt we’ll be looking at front pages in four or eight years (if they exist) and wondering what went wrong. That era ended today.

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