Monday, January 19, 2009

The Inauguration Days Of Our Lives

It was a school day, but my mother knew that what was happening a hundred miles away in Washington was far more important than anything that Mrs. Paris, my sixth grade teacher, would impart. So I was allowed to stay home and watch the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on television.

There are seminal moments in my life that have become a blur, perhaps some that have faded from memory entirely. But I remember January 20, 1961, in minute detail, even down to the grilled cheese sandwiches and potato sticks that we ate for lunch from TV tables as we watched history being made on our second-hand Philco in the family room.

It was brilliantly sunny but bitterly cold. I was surprised that Kennedy and much of the crowd behind him on the podium was hatless. And while I recall my mother dabbing her eyes with the Kleenex that she invariably had tucked under the left cuff of her sweater as Kennedy was sworn in and delivered his inaugural address, what I remember most vividly is Robert Frost then approaching the microphone, seemingly befuddled as he tried to put the papers in his shaking hands in some order.

We were to learn later that the elderly poet had been blinded by the sun's glare on the snow-covered Capitol grounds and was unable to read the
poem that he had written for the occasion. Instead he recited from memory "The Gift Outright." It began:

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.
* * * * *
Ten or so weeks before the Kennedy inauguration, my mother and I had patiently stood in front of the tiny passenger terminal at the Wilmington, Delaware airport. It didn't matter that Kennedy was over an hour late when the Caroline, his powder-puff blue and white campaign plane, finally dropped out of the sky and taxied toward the chain-link fence that stood between 2,000 or so people and the next president of the United States.

The moment that he walked toward the crowd and held out his hand to me remains as indelible as Frost reciting "The Gift Outright": His steely yet warm gaze, those incredible greenish-gray eyes, every hair on his head catching and reflecting the sun just right. Gleaming teeth. The kind of smile you would save for an old friend.

I wondered why he was alone. Where was Jackie? But the thought quickly passed as he grasped my small hand and squeezed it ever so slightly. I expected his hand to feel rough and calloused, but in the instant we touched before he moved on, it seemed soft and warm.

Barack Obama does that to people, too. He also inspires. You also feel that you are in the presence of greatness.

I know that I will be only one of many white people of my generation to link Kennedy and Obama. Yet that is too pat because racism and discrimination were lurking behind the inaugural veneer. And while there was a feeling of change in the air on January 20, 1961, the problems America faced were small and certainly far less global compared to those that Obama must confront.

Dwight Eisenhower had been a not-bad president, as my dyed-in-the-wool Roosevelt Democrat mother would grudgingly acknowledge years later, while George Bush leaves a legacy of blight and bitterness that I can barely comprehend not as an adolescent awakening to the world's ways as I was on that Inauguration Day 28 years ago, but as a wordly wise sixtysomething who has seen war, pestilence and sorrow over a long career as a journalist.

The mood is euphoric today as perhaps two million people converge on Ronald Reagan's Shining City on the Hill, and could not be more different than the hours before the Bush inaugurations. The DF&C and I feel pretty jazzed, and tomorrow will be a day of celebration for us, as well.

But the enormity of the task confronting Obama as Bush scuttles back to Texas to search amongst the sagebrush for his squandered legacy beggars description. It is heartening that a sizeable majority of Americans tell pollsters that they are prepared to give the untested young man from Illinois (as opposed to those tested older men who have so thoroughly screwed the American pooch) plenty of time to repair the damage, but my heart aches for him as it does for my country.

Tomorrow will indeed be a day to celebrate, but come Wednesday it will be time to try to begin the healing.

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