Last Wednesday, I was one of the huddled masses who braved the cold for hours on the National Mall to catch a glimpse of the inauguration. While I saw less visually than I might have from 10-250, I stood amid the beating heart of America and watched it change firsthand.
As the political luminaries filled the pavilion at the foot of the Capitol, the crowd jeered its favorite villains. Joe Lieberman and John McCain, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, the wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney and the still-President George W. Bush, all were resoundingly booed. Some seemed to think it mean spirited, and perhaps it was, but it hardly begins to repay their years of irresponsible mismanagement.
Then the moment of truth came, and even this hardened cynic’s eyes glistened as Barack Obama put his hand on Lincoln’s bible and swore to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States. I’m not normally one for historical sentimentality, so perhaps it was just the wind. Despite Chief Justice Roberts’ bungling, the deed was done and the crowd cheered their approval. President Obama’s speech was not the soaring hopestorm that many of the spectators seemed to want. It was instead a brief recounting of the huge hole we have driven into over the past eight years, and a pragmatic and reasoned pointing toward the way out.
Missing were some of the rhetorical flourishes of Lincoln’s second inaugural (“fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray”), or Kennedy’s first and only (“ask not what your country can do for you”), but Obama managed to hit a few high notes. This engineer cheered himself hoarse at “we will restore science to its rightful place” and “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”
Taking a new tack in the Global War on Terror, Obama pledged to the world’s despots that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But he ended with a call to service and hard work, imploring all Americans to “brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.” Having already inspired us during the campaign, now is his time to lead us back toward greatness.
Reflecting on the experience during the long drive back to Boston, I realized that it was the first time in my life that I have really, truly, felt proud of my country. Not because our President is black, but because he is smart. Not because of his party, but because of his pragmatism.
In order to solve the myriad crises we face, concessions will have to be made on both sides of the political divide. But we will redeploy our forces in Iraq to the more pressing battles in Afghanistan and at home. We will face down the financial crisis and re-regulate our economy to better withstand future turmoil. We will finally do something about global warming and lessen our dependence on foreign oil. We will protect women’s right to make their own medical decisions. Our government will be once again by ruled by competence, not ideology.
Watching the decisions come from the White House for the past week has been like living in an alternate universe. But this ‘Bizzaro-world’ is not a Yes Men hoax, it is now reality. From ending military courts at Guantanamo Bay, to reversing the global gag rule on family planning, from refreshing the Freedom of Information Act to increasing automotive fuel standards to match the rest of the world, President Obama has done more in his first week than I had dreamt of for a year.
As his term continues, I know that the gloss will inevitably fade. The political mudslinging will hit our golden boy too. But on that clear cold day on the National Mall, surrounded by two million fellow Americans, things suddenly didn’t seem so bad. And for the first time, I waved my own country’s flag with pride.