“We had all started early from home that beautiful but chilly January morning in 2009 in Washington, DC. We wanted to be sure to be there on The National Mall in the middle of the U.S. capital that day. The last stretch, all motor traffic was prohibited, and the streets were full of eager and smiling people on their way by foot to the heart of the capital.”
“The walk of my life,” said a young black man from Atlanta, Georgia, to me. We were among the almost two million people who wandered down to the monuments over the American nation’s two hundred year history to be part of something historic, something that we still found difficult to comprehend that it had happened, something we certainly did not want to miss — a black man had been elected President. We thought that maybe that might happen sometime in the future, maybe even in our lifetimes, but not this year, and probably not for many years to come.”
Those words are from my book America – Land of Dreams about the inauguration four years ago, when Barack Obama became America’s first black president, gave his inaugural address, and we said goodbye to the old America.
Obama’s speech that day was not of the same high quality we had been used to during the election campaign, and certainly nothing like his dramatic speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, which launched him as a possible presidential candidate:
”There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”
But his inaugural address in 2009 contained nothing really memorable and certainly nothing that has been subsequently quoted extensively. It was a speech in the deepest economic crisis for America since the Depression and with two ongoing wars. The speech refleced those somber times.
That’s nothing unusual, wrote Larry Sabato, professor at the University of Virginia, recently on his blog the Crystal Ball. Sabato wrote about numerable inaugural addresses in the modern era that no one remembers, certainly nothing like Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1965, when he said:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”
Or 1933, in the middle of the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt said:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
But, Sabato wrote, “there is arguably only one speech that transcends the concerns of the moment and speaks to every generation anew, from beginning to end, without becoming dated,” and that was John F Kennedys inaugural address in 1961.
“Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”
“…[W]e shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
“Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Lincoln’s second inaugural address is regarded as much stronger than his first. Maybe we will say the same thing about Obama after tomorrow? But times are different now and in 2009. The two million who gathered on The National Mall will likely be far fewer tomorrow, and the hope of big changes in Washington is no longer there. The political paralysis in Washington continues as America’s political and economic problems grow.
Back then in January 2009, we said goodbye to the old America, but we have not really succeeded in doing so during Obama’s first term. We are more seasoned now, less hopeful, more realistic.
Still, we should be heartened by the fact that with John F Kennedy a candidate’s religion is no longer an important election issue, the color of a candidate’s skin is no longer an issue with Obama. In that sense, we are really able to bid farewell today to the old America.