Some reflections two days after the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America.
America lives eternally pitched forward, and never was the angle more acute than on Tuesday at the Mall when Barack Obama became the President of the United States.
In our headlong rush into our own future, we often are quite content to leave huge chunks of our memory – and our history – behind. And over the past few days I have pondered how this is both good and bad.
Every one of the 1.8 million who are estimated to have crammed on to the Mall – a number that would have been equal to nearly 50% of the country’s entire population at the time of the Revolution. – had his or her own memories, and these memories accounted for the tears and cheers captured in so many of the photographs of the moment.
As I rolled (for I was in a wheelchair) with Anne and Kate on to the Mall, I found myself thinking about a different inauguration, one that that took place twenty years ago.
On January 20, 1989, George H. W. Bush took the oath of office. I was not in Washington on that day, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the day had dawned rainy and grey. I was graduate student at Harvard University, just finishing my dissertation.
A decade before I had been deeply moved by the first inauguration to which I really paid close attention, which was that of Jimmy Carter in 1977. It was not the pageantry that touched me, but the simple sight of the peaceful transfer of power from Gerald Ford to the new president. The campaign had been hard fought, Carter had defeated an appointed (though incumbent) president, and now the country was moving forward into new territory. I found myself choked up by the majestic ease of this moment.
In 1989 though I had not supported George H. W. Bush, I was hopeful that I would again experience this cleansing effect. Yet as I started watching the television coverage and I found myself drenched in anger and misery.
It took me a few minutes of self-diagnosis to locate the origin of these disturbing thoughts. What infuriated me was the fawning tone of the news commentators, men and women so caught in the moment of saying hopeful and praiseworthy things about the new president that they seemed to have forgotten the shameful price that Bush had been willing to pay to win office.
I am referring specifically to the horrific piece of race-baiting that the Republican campaign pursued in the Willy Horton attacks. For those who may not remember it, these were filthy tactics in which the frightening mug-shot of a bearded black man – “every suburban housewife’s nightmare,” as the ad’s creator put it — was broadcast around the country to destroy Michael Dukakis’ candidacy. Horton had been released for a weekend on a furlough program while Dukakis was governor, and during one of his absences from prison he brutally raped and stabbed two people.
The superficial point of the ad was Dukakis was soft on crime and thus somehow responsible for these acts. The deeper – and racist — subtext was that Dukakis would not protect whites from the violently criminal impulses of black Americans.
It was slander, chosen specifically for its explosive content. The most offensive television ad about Horton was made by Larry McCarthy, a former assistant to Roger Ailes, now the head of Fox News. Information about the furlough program came from Andrew Card, a Massachusetts State Senator who later became George W. Bush’s chief of staff. The Horton ad was powerful because when shown to focus groups it caused voters to shift from Dukakis to Bush almost instantaneously.
Lee Atwater, Bush’s campaign manage said at the time that he intended to make Horton a household name, better known than his running mate. In 1991, when Atwater was dying of cancer, he apologized to Dukakis for the whole tawdry event. The apology was appropriate, but the damage had been done, because it, more than anything else, won the presidency for the first president Bush.
In 1989 the outrage of the Horton ad still burned in me, though on the day of the inauguration I felt like I was the only person who remembered it. The sight of so many happy faces talking about the virtues of the new president seemed to confirm an elementary truth about American politics: shamelessness wins. The pomp of the day seemed to proclaim that no matter how terrible one’s words or dishonorable one’s deeds, the amnesia that is one of America’s best – and worst – characteristics, would always reward those willing to wallow in slime.
On that rainy day this unhappy view pulled me away from the television set. Instead, I walked over to the chapel of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. This is a small Episcopal community of monks who live and worship in a monastery on the banks of the Charles River, tucked right in among the buildings of Harvard University.
I spent several hours in prayer, trying to rinse away my bitterness at the collective loss of memory, hoping that the day would come when our national capacity for amnesia could be put to better use and that America would find a new way to practice politics.
And then, two days ago, on Inauguration Day 2009, that day arrived. Exactly twenty years later, I found myself not on my knees in a monastery but standing between the Reflecting Pool and the Capitol, watching, again, the miracle of renewal that is America at its best. This time American amnesia was being put to it correct use.
Though Obama himself was careful to honor the struggles of those who had gone before, the tens of millions who watched him take the oath were willing to cast aside the varied forms of personal and public anguish of the past. Either they did not know what happened or they no longer cared. Time had perhaps not healed all wounds, but it had healed enough.
And though we will certainly keep talking about race in American politics, everyone on the Mall, and in the country, and perhaps on the whole planet, understood that one question has forever been laid to rest.
For most of my life, the question was so powerful that it was almost never directly asked: when would America ever be ready to elect an African-American president? And until two days ago, the answer could only be: a long, long time in the future. So long that it was too painful to think about.
Now, abruptly, that moment is in the past.
What is remarkable is that soon this reality will no longer be remarkable.
My sons, who both voted this fall, are too young to remember Willy Horton. Professors of modern American history teach about the massive wound of race that has festered for nearly four centuries, but the story of Horton and the campaign of 1988 has already been superseded by George H. W. Bush’s eventual loss to Bill Clinton, W’s abuse of patriotism as a weapon of electoral division, and finally, of course, the superlative transformation wrought by the election of 2008.
So standing on the mall, shoulder to shoulder with so many Americans, black and white, from all over the country, and of every age, many of whom had walked a long weary road over many years to stand next to each other in the frigid wind, I thought of another great historical transformation which I had witnessed, as an international observer at the South African elections in 1994 in South Africa.
I thought specifically of the marvelous passage from the memoir The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs, a long-time member of the African National Congress. Though Sachs lost an eye and an arm to a car-bombing by the South African secret police, he returned to post-apartheid South Africa and became a justice of the new Constitutional Court (equivalent to our Supreme Court). Standing in line at those same elections that I had witnessed, Sachs wondered:
Did things just happen, or did we make things come about? I knew that nothing we were living through had just come to pass. We had willed it all, worked for it, never given up, never let go of the basic ideas. Yes, we had believed – belief had been fundamental – but we had backed it up with endless hard work, and learned how to do things together, and to accommodate the fears and interests of others, and to survive the sarcasm and disbelief of those who regarded themselves as more knowledgeable than ourselves about what they called the real world, and we just kept on going on and on until at last the impossible became first feasible, then real, and finally inevitable.
The presidency of Barack Obama is an idea that has made a similar transition – from impossible to feasible and now to real.
We may not quite prepared to call it inevitable. But we have crossed the boundary into the utterly astounding.
More than once our nation – born in devotion to freedom — has lost complete track of its ideals, but now they have again been found. And the future — for which we had longed, and to which many had been blind – is something that we have now seen.
It has moved from unreasonable aspiration to unforgettable memory, from that which we could only perceive dimly to what we now have seen face to face.
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