Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Hail to the chief!
The 19th Century German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck once said, "God looks after drunks, little children and the United States of America."
If you ever needed proof of that, look at what happened today. With our whole world unraveling everywhere we look, along comes the perfect guy to deal with it.
Coincidence? I don't think so.
Shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes went to the White House to check out the new president.
He came away much relieved. FDR, he said, had "a second-rate intellect." But, he added, it didn't matter because FDR had a first-rate temperament.
But we're even luckier. Our new president has both a first-rate intellect and a first-rate temperament. The last one we had with that combination was Lincoln. Like Lincoln, he has that rarest of gifts: the ability to step outside himself and look at himself objectively.
He's like a chess master, always thinking two or three moves ahead. Even during the hottest moments of the campaign, he was keeping one eye on how he would govern.
That's why he's able to brush off past slights and surround himself with people who have said really awful things about him. He's not threatened by their intellects, and he's not threatened by their ambitions. All he cares about is whether they can help him save our country.
And that's why the young people love him so much. They think of him as their best hope to move America past the issues of the 20th Century and start dealing with the issues of the 21st.
I don't think they fully appreciate the significance of having our first African American president because they're looking forward, not back. Heck, they don't even see him as black; they see him as multi-racial, which reflects the world they live in.
And they're right. Black father, white mother, growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii - he's our first global president. Everyone in the world can identify with him, and he can identify with them.
For the first time since 1963, the coolest guy on the planet, bigger than any rock star, the idol of every teenager from Beijing to Baghdad, is the President of the United States. How cool is that?
But I can't help one last glance backward to when I was a kid, when separate - but definitely not equal - was the law of the land.
It was worst in the South, where it was open season on blacks. A white could bully, cheat, rape, even kill blacks; and nobody would lift a finger.
But the shame wasn't confined to the South. Even in liberal Berkeley - Berkeley! - the schools weren't fully desegregated until September 1968, five months after Martin Luther King was killed.
That history was implicit in everything that happened Tuesday, especially in Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction. He was with King from the very start, succeeding him as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He began the prayer with a quote from a 109-year-old song that I'll bet every African American in the country recognized immediately: "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing," aka "The Negro National Anthem":
"God of our weary years/God of our silent tears/Thou who has brought us thus far on the way/Thou who has by Thy might/Led us into the light/Keep us forever in the path, we pray."
As I heard those words, the images of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, those four little girls in Birmingham and so many others came flooding through my mind.
Not that racism is dead. As usual, the black guy had to be twice as good to get the job. But something wonderful is happening in this country.
President Obama, as usual, said it best: "What the cynics have failed to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them."
Our president has given us our marching orders. Be the change.