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January 20, 2009

Don’t Break The Oath

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flaginaugural09350.jpegWhy’s it so cold in D.C. today? To steal from my dear friend Amanda‘s Twitter feed: "It’s so cold because the white man said it’d be a cold day in Hell before a black man became president," said someone on the Mall.

Yes, it was cold, fine, as everyone expected. To tell the truth, up until Saturday, I figured I’d put on my pajamas, open some Cheetos and watch the inaugural from the Flophouse couch. And then I had a conversation with my hypothetical granddaughter, who wanted to know what it was like in D.C. the day that the first African-American president took the oath of office. Well, it wasn’t bad, I told her, you know, I stayed in, had some coffee, sort of took a nap until 11… and that just didn’t cut it. To be a journalist who blows off witnessing American history seems like malpractice. What’s a bit of cold and a bit of overcrowding compared to experiencing an unrepeatable moment?

So, with some friends, I woke up at 6:30, had a rib-sticking breakfast courtesy of my roommate Becks and walked the two or so miles to the Mall. Thanks to FDL, I had a press pass for one-or-the-other tents, but somewhere on the walk down 19th street it occurred to me that — I’m really sorry here, guys, the blame is mine and I owe whomever wanted the pass an expensive dinner — I shouldn’t use it. President Obama keeps saying that this moment isn’t his, it’s ours — ours as a people, as a culture, in this unique moment. It made sense, then, to cover his inauguration out on the Mall, among the however-many-million people, standing next to my friends, heckling, Twittering, cheering, yelling.  

We found a spot in the shadow of the Washington Monument, in between a bunch of speakers and JumboTrons, that gave us a clear — or fairly clear, if you discount the teeming mass of people — line of sight to the Capitol. Standing around us were a bunch of young families. One young mother, who liked some of the jokes Dave Weigel and I were making, struck up a conversation and revealed that she likes native New Yorkers like me. (It’s like I don’t even recognize this country.) A couple of people our age stood next to us and felt likewashmonumentinaug3501.jpeg joining in on the mockery of Bush and Cheney and all types of of senators and congresspeople and governors. We booed when Bush came on the jumbotron; laughed at Dick Cheney, who sulked in his wheelchair looking like the Ring had just fallen into Mount Doom (a Dave Weigel observation); and started O-BA-MA chants without much provocation.

The speech itself wasn’t one of Obama’s best, but it accomplished its principal goal of establishing Obama as a historical figure who’s prepared to take up monumental challenges. Where it finds its poetry is through suggesting that it’s not just Obama who’s like this, but all of us. There’s so much there about insisting on a more mature America, chastened from its mistakes precisely in order to be equal to the tasks at hand. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things" is a really wonderful flourish, and made substantial by points like these:

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with 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.

Our power grows through its prudent use. Such a long way we’ve come from "you’re either with us or with the terrorists," or, indeed, "strong and wrong beats weak and right."

A friend of mine remarked that it was merciful of Obama to deliver a short speech because of the cold. But Obama used the cold as a metaphor: "in this winter of our hardship… let us brave once more the icy currents." And there it reinforced why so many hundreds of thousands of people traveled to the Mall, and why it was important to do so. Because it was cold outside. But it would have been so much colder if we didn’t have so many of us around each other to warm us.

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