The Inauguration

January 20, 2009

I have to admit, I was very moved by the Inauguration. I thought the John Williams piece (“Air and Simple Gifts”) performed by Itzhak Perlman, Gabriela Montero, Anthony McGill, and (Cambridge resident) Yo-Yo Ma was beautifully appropriate, both the music itself and the choice of performers. Three of the four performers are immigrants to this country, and the four have ancestries from four different continents, performing a piece of music that borrows from a Shaker hymn from a fifth. The Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” is also used to powerful effect in the American classic “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland. And then there’s this:

“Although Williams chose to use the Copland material because President Obama counts that composer among his classical favorites, there’s another significant point here. In 1953, a pre-inaugural concert by the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall, a concert attended by then president-elect Eisenhower, was to have included a performance of one of Copland’s most popular works, A Lincoln Portrait. But a Republican congressman (from Illinois, by the way) objected, suggesting that Copland was too liberal and maybe even Communist-friendly, so the piece was pulled from the concert. Inserting the touch of Copland into the Obama inauguration, Williams told Variety last week, offers ‘a completed circle of events that is nice to think about.'”

To watch this on stage – the performers, the music, the crowd – I felt so proud, and so privileged, to be an American and to be witnessing this piece of history.

And it is not often that I hear a speech from a US president that resonates with my own beliefs so strongly. At least in his speech (and his choice of music), this is a president who shares many elements of my worldview, including my view of America and its promise to so many millions.

I love this part of the speech:

“Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.”

This is a VERY different vision of America – of government! – than we’ve had for the past 8 years. This is a president who genuinely sees government as having a mandate, a very purpose, in providing for the general welfare, as the Preamble of the Constitution stipulates. And he defines that general welfare in terms of how well prosperity reaches all of the members of our society, not just those at the pinnacle.

And then this:

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our founding fathers faced with perils that 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.

And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy, guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. ”

It’s hard to overstate exactly how much of a rebuke of the Bush administration’s view of foreign policy this is. This represents a sea change in the way the United States interacts with the world, assuming this speech represents the way the Obama administration will actually behave (and I suspect it does). The rule of law and civil liberties are not barriers to our security, they promote our security, and they come before it (imagine Cheney saying something like this!). Military power has limited efficacy – our security depends on living up to our ideals and reaching out to other countries to form strong alliances. He’s dead right – this is the very essence of shrewd foreign policy – but it is also the exact opposite of the way those in charge saw the world and saw American power over the past 8 years.

And just a few other things in there: that this country is composed of Christians and Muslims and Jews (and NONBELIEVERS!…I never thought I’d hear a major politician acknowledge that!), that Obama’s father wouldn’t be seated in a restaurant in Washington, D.C. as recently as 60 years ago, that we cannot continue to consume resources without concern or recourse (imagine Bush saying that!), the references to the winter at Valley Forge.

I don’t want to get too sentimental about the whole thing – I allowed myself that after the election. I can’t stress more how much work is ahead of us in this country, and that Obama, whatever his strengths, is of course just a man – a gifted and talented one, perhaps more so than almost anyone who has come along on the political stage in a long time – but still a man, who is going to make many mistakes. Additionally, in spite of all his talents and achievements, this is his first day on the job, amidst some of the most challenging circumstances a president has faced in quite a while. And this is a man who was still in the Illinois state legislature as recently as 5 years ago.

There’s a lot to be said about his job performance over the coming days and months. For today, watching this inauguration, with the crowds, the flags, the music, and the speeches, again and again I marveled at the privilege I have to be a part of this country and to be able to witness such an important piece of its history. I used to wonder if I would ever see a day such as today, and here it is. I marvel at how many had to suffer and die, for so many years, to get to this day. Yet I am here to watch it and, for the most part, they are not. And watching this, in spite of the challenges ahead, I do believe that this country’s role in history is coming to and end, and that perhaps in some ways it is just beginning. I can only try to imagine the hope and awe that so many around the world must feel today.

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