The Green Papers Commentary
 

NOW COMES THE HARD PART!:
TO LEAD AND TO GOVERN
A few random notes on the
Inauguration of Barack Obama

Thursday, January 22, 2009

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
TheGreenPapers.com Staff


Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real- they are serious and they are many: they will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: they will be met...

The time has come to reaffirm our enduring Spirit, to choose our better History- to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of Happiness...

We remain the most prosperous, powerful Nation on Earth: our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began; our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year- our capacity remains undiminished: but our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions- that time has truly passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America...

We will not apologize for our Way of Life- nor will we waver in its defense- and, for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing Terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our Spirit is stronger and cannot be broken: you cannot outlast us and we will defeat you- for we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a Nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus- and nonbelievers: we are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth and, because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe the old hatreds shall someday pass- that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that, as the World grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself and that America must play its role in ushering a new era of Peace...

Our challenges may be new- the instruments with which we meet them may be new- but those values upon which our success depends- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play. tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism- these things are old; these things are true: they have been the quiet force of progress throughout our History...

This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our Liberty and our creed- why men and women of every race and faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred Oath...

Let it be said by our children's children that, when we were tested. we refused to let this journey end- that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and, with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of Freedom and delivered it safely to future generations...

selected excerpts from the Inaugural Address of President BARACK OBAMA-

20 January 2009


An Inaugural Address is a rather strange animal, one at once both political and civic here in the United States-- especially the first ones given by Presidents who have won (or, in the case of President Obama, yet have the potential to win) more than one term in that office: they are intended to state the new President's most basic aims and vision, while outlining at least some broad concepts of possible policy options, all without getting bogged down in those details best left to a State of the Union Message or an urgent Prime Time telecast from the Oval Office to the American People.

Much has been made of President Obama's Inaugural Address not seeming to contain one specific, soul-grabbing section that might later alone resonate throughout History-- the lines of his I myself have quoted at the beginning of this piece are merely my own suggestions as to what such a section of his speech might later prove to be-- but, in fact, this is true of even the most memorable Inaugural Addresses in Our Nation's History. One must always remember: one of the chief flaws in the notion that "today's news headlines are tomorrow's History book text" is that what appears to be most important now is not what might come to be considered having actually been most important once one is able to look back from then.

For instance, the most famous line in John Fitzgerald Kennedy's Inaugural Address has long been considered the one about how one should "[a]sk not what your country can do for you...", followed by, perhaps, his noting that "the torch has been passed to a new generation"-- yet the newspapers of 21 January 1961 here inadvertently buried both these eventual historical leads- for, while both lines were duly noted in the many articles about the event (especially the last one, what with JFK having been the youngest person ever elected to the Presidency), they tended to appear in these newspaper columns well after JFK's declaiming that America would "pay any price, bear any burden... support any friend, oppose any foe" in defense of freedom or his urging that we "never negotiate out of fear" while also "never fear[ing] to negotiate". Indeed, the actual headlines of the day were far more about JFK's call for "a grand and global alliance- North and South, East and West- that can assure a more fruitful life for all Mankind", words within his Inaugural Address all but forgotten by the average person in the street nowadays.

'Tis true that many an early volunteer in the Peace Corps later set up by President Kennedy would ever claim to have been inspired by that "ask not what your country can do for you" clarion call but, whatever effect this line might have had on the ordinary American watching and/or listening to it 'live' or reading it later on, it seems to have had no major effect on how the reporters and editors of the day first wrote up the lead story.

So it was also with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's now-most memorable "the only thing we have to fear is Fear itself": the other famous line from FDR's Inaugural Address- how "this Nation asks for action, and action now"- did get top billing (understandable considering the times) but the main points of the lead stories about FDR's speech seemed to be mostly about his scoring of the "money changers" in "the temple of our civilization" and his comparing the powers he might need to deal with the then-ongoing economic crisis to the powers a President would be gladly given in wartime (I quoted extensively from these particular portions of FDR's Inaugural Address in my Commentary of 19 January 2009, by the way).

The point of these two rather obvious examples is, of course, that what might be recalled in the months, years, and even decades ahead about the first words spoken to the American People as President is not necessarily that which is being cited as being the parts of an Inaugural Address which can so neatly encapsulate the whole immediately as the echoes of the new President's voice are only just beginning to fade within the Capitol plaza and the national Mall. Thus, History will be judge as to what might have been important in that which President Obama delivered shortly after Noon this past 20 January: meanwhile, we do not yet have the capacity to so judge: for much will depend on how well- or not so well- the new President is able both to lead and to govern.

I want to also point out at least a couple things about the overall tone surrounding the Inauguration as President of these United States of one who is, after all, fully named Barack Hussein Obama, both an African- as well as an Islamic- name:

President Obama was, evidently, the first President of the United States to ever address the Muslim World directly in an Inaugural Address-- but I was also struck by the wording of the Invocation delivered by the Reverend Rick Warren (whose choice, by Obama, to give the Invocation was fraught with controversy largely due to Warren's support of the successful Proposition opposing the legalization of Gay Marriage in California in this past General Election):

much was made of Rev. Warren's invoking the name of Jesus in four different languages- Hebrew (Yeshua), Aramaic (Issa), as well as Spanish and English- as bringing something of a multicultural flavor to his prayer. Less noted, however, was Warren's use- in the Invocation- of the Shema ("Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one") in its Old Testament/Jewish formulation (as found in Deuteronomy 6:4) as opposed to the manner in which it is quoted by Jesus in the Gospels of the Christian New Testament, followed- possibly far more notably!- by his noting, of God, that "only You are compassionate and merciful" (notable precisely because each Sura- or chapter- of the Qu'ran opens with a formulation often translated into English as "In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful").

As for the Benediction by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, one of the last surviving "old lions" among those Black ministers whose faith and fearlessness drove the earliest phases of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s into the 1960s, Rev. Lowery utilized a variation of an old-school formulation heard in the Ghetto of what might be called the immediate post-early Civil Rights Movement era (as the late 1960s turned into the 1970s) as to "White being 'alright', Yellow being 'mellow'; how Brown could 'stick around' and Black should simply 'get back'" by asking the aid of the Almighty "to help us work for that day when Black will not be asked to get back; when Brown can stick around; when Yellow will be mellow; when the Red man can get ahead, man; and when White will embrace what's right".

Many conservative commentators (most of whom, it should be noted, were White) completely missed the real significance of this and, instead, took at least some offense, primarily (where not solely) at that last- seeing Lowery's use of these words as being, at best, "unfortunate"- those of a Black voice from the past, no longer in tune with the changing times that had allowed President Obama to be elected to that High Office in the first place. Thankfully, most Black pundits (including Black conservative pundits, by the way) actually "got it": that it was delivered by Lowery in a humorous vein, as if to say that one could now- at least at times- laugh at what once was so painful (the original formulation from the early 1970s- a time during which I myself was still in high school- has all the feeling and aura of, say, the Blues: replete with the same elements of so obvious pain hidden behind the veneer rather clever use of word play ['I go to church on Sunday 'cause I know what I did on Saturday night' and the like]).

If nothing else, negative reaction to Lowery's comments suggests that- while we Americans have, indeed, now come so far- we, quite obviously, still have so far yet to go. See? I told you all, just a few days ago now, it would be "rather uncomfortable" for a time and how actually "it should be" ;-)

Yeah, this middle-aged White boy can laugh when it's appropriate to do so, too!

 


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