Radio 702 called as I was walking to Washington’s Mall with a million others on Tuesday morning to be in the general vicinity when President Barack Obama was sworn in. Would I be available for an interview after the inaugural address, a producer asked. Sure, I said.
Just another ant in an ocean of them, I wasn’t going to get anywhere near the actual ceremony, so I thought I’d take in the proceedings from the Lincoln Memorial. This is the splendid neo-classical temple dedicated to President Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, from whose steps Martin Luther King spoke of his dream in 1964.
On the opposite end of the Mall from the Capitol, two miles from the action, it nonetheless seemed an appropriate place to be when America’s first president of African descent took his oath of office. One might not see anything (other than one of Washington’s most iconic views on a sparkling if chilly day), but the sound, at least, was being piped in loud and clear.
702 never called back, or perhaps it tried and couldn’t get through. The local networks weren’t built in anticipation of Obama drawing the largest crowd, nearly all with cell phones and wanting to communicate, Washington has ever seen. Whatever the reason, 702’s listeners were spared my observations. Here are a couple.
Bristling with infelicities (“the swill of civil war”, “the lines of tribe”), Obama’s inaugural address was not an altogether lovely piece of writing. It will not be ranked among the greats with Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1933 (“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”), or with John Kennedy’s 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”), which turned out to be a little too inspiring. That torch ended up setting a lot of unnecessary fires.
What was missing in style Obama made up for in content. Particularly striking was his quotation from the letter St Paul wrote to a fractious community of early Christians in Corinth: “the time has come set aside childish things”. The new president wasn’t simply telling America to stop fiddling with its iPhone. “What is required of us,” he said, “is a new era of responsibility.”
He put his finger on something important there. The characteristics of adolescence, the male variety especially, include an utter disregard for the consequences of one’s actions, a preference for instant gratification, a fatuous sense of invincibility and a general absence of wisdom. Yes, I am the father of teenagers. In recent years, it has often been hard to distinguish between general American behavior and the antics of my offspring, but even they would not have invaded Iraq.
The subprime mortgage debacle, to cite another example, is the result of pubescently feckless I-want-it-now-ness on the part of everyone involved: from the home buyers who believed they were actually good for the loans they were getting, to the investment bankers playing hot potato with the derivatives of derivatives of securitized debt obligations to the moral cretins at the ratings agencies who helped cover up the bankers’ Ponzi schemes.
Also appealing was Obama’s promise of a grown-up approach to the likes of Robert Mugabe and Team Castro. “To those leaders around the world who sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
This shows a healthy and pragmatic preference for respecting the sovereignty of nations and people even when they are ruled by thugs and for leaving the door open for constructive engagement with the thugs should they be receptive. Sensibly, no hint of Kennedy’s “bear any burden” for freedom. No regime should be empowered to bolster itself with the canard that it is standing up to Yankee imperialism.