by Ralph Brauer | 1/20/2009 12:36:00 PM
Blogging live on Inauguration Day, less than two hours before Barack Obama takes the oath of office.
The Backdrop: When the actor in Ronald Reagan moved the location of the presidential swearing-in from the front of the Capitol to the rear little could he have foreseen the consequences. Ever playing to the camera, Reagan chose to use the rear, which as millions of tourists know provides one of the most famous views in America as it looks down the mall towards the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and Jefferson Memorial and now the World War II Memorial. Across the river lies Arlington National Cemetery. There seems little question Reagan personally stage-managed this setting which he would invoke in his Inaugural Address.
With his actor's sense of symbolism symbolism Reagan thought that if the ceremony took in that view his words would resonate with the nation's past. The obelisk dedicated to the man known as the Father of Our Country would punctuate the event like a giant exclamation point while the stern visage of the Great Emancipator gazed on the scene. Across the river the dead at Arlington would lie like a Greek chorus silently overseeing it all. The Great Communicator worked the setting into his first Inaugural address, using it not at the beginning of his speech, as an ordinary speaker might have been tempted to do, but at the end:
This is the first time in history that this ceremony has been held, as you have been told, on this West Front of the Capitol. Standing here, one faces a magnificent vista, opening up on this city's special beauty and history. At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants on whose shoulders we stand.
Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man: George Washington, Father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence. And then beyond the Reflecting Pool the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial.
Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Beyond those monuments to heroism is the Potomac River, and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National Cemetery with its row on row of simple white markers bearing crosses or Stars of David. They add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom. Each one of those markers is a monument to the kinds of hero I spoke of earlier. Their lives ended in places called Belleau Wood, The Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno and halfway around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and jungles of a place called Vietnam.
Today, a quarter century later, Reagan's decision endows what is already a singular moment in our history with even more resonance. When Reagan moved the ceremony--and the decision was his--no one could have possibly predicted that a little more than two decades later an African American would stand where Reagan stood, his eloquence punctuated by a monument to a man who used slaves to labor at Mt. Vernon and presided over a Constitutional Convention that declared African Americans three-fifths of a person, not because the drafters believed they were persons but to better ascertain their value as property and to pad the electoral votes of the very slave-owners who brutalized them. Nor could Reagan have foreseen that as he spoke Barack Obama's view would take in the monument to the man who set those slaves free but at the same time believed the best solution to what would become known as the "race problem" was for African Americans to return to Africa.
But what resonates even more is that the Lincoln Memorial provided the backdrop for Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.'s dream. In outlining that dream King did not even dare imagine that as he looked down the Reflecting Pool he would be looking at a place where a black man would stand to deliver an Inaugural Address.
Finally there is Arlington, a cemetery created to hold the dead from the nation's Civil War, a spot purposely chosen because it was the grounds of the mansion of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee, whose residence now lies surrounded by tombstones and looks towards the eternal flame of John F. Kennedy.
It is said that great leaders make the impossible seem inevitable. Perhaps nothing about this singular moment is more remarkable than what now appears as its inevitability. A year ago the people of Iowa and New Hampshire had just made their Presidential choices and the idea of an African American President seemed anything but inevitable. As the issue of race surfaced again and again in both subtle and not-so-subtle contexts it seemed to grow larger, not smaller, as the nomination of Barack Obama became more inevitable. Even on election night the network talking heads spoke of a Bradley Effect even as the map behind them continued to turn blue.
Today, as millions of Americans sit glued to their television sets, it is to those graves in Arlington that my thoughts drift. To anyone who has walked that hill and looked out over Washington, the experience cannot help but grab you by the throat, especially as you watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which takes place in an eerie silence punctuated only by the measured steps of the Marines as they execute their carefully choreographed walk.
Those dead in Arlington fought to free African Americans from the bonds of slavery. Later when African Americans fought for their own freedom, they were segregated in death as they had been in life until Harry Truman issued his order for "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed service" in 1948. Cemetery historian Tom Sherlock comments on the special significance Arlington holds or people of color.
These soldiers knew what it was like to fight for their freedom perhaps more than any U.S. soldier before or since they were literally fighting for their existence.
It must be strange to know what someone is going to say before they make a great speech, as so many in the press do because they have advance copies. It takes all the spontaneity, all the emotion from the moment. They even know what they are going to write.
My eyes stayed dry only until Aretha Franklin began to sing and then I lost it. She turned "My Country Tis of Thee" into a gospel song whose roots lay back in the church of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin and the churches before his and those whose rhythms and harmonies lay behind what she sang. If you have ever heard Aretha's gospel album or one of C.L.'s recorded sermons, you know what I mean. This was truly America transformed scarcely half a century after they would not let Marian Anderson sing on the Mall and Eleanor Roosevelt resigned form the Daughters of the American Revolution because of it.
Itzhak Perlman then follows Biden's oath of office with the old Shaker hymn "A Gift to be Simple," whose best-known incarnation is in Aaron Copeland's "Appalachian Spring." The Shakers received their name from their vigorous dancing which is described in the words to the song:
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Till by turning, turning we come round right.
That the Chief Justice cannot get the words to the Oath of Office right somehow seems both symbolic and has a certain element of premonition in it, for this President will undoubtedly tangle with Roberts and the Gang of Four. The outcome of that struggle will determine much about the next four years. He also seemed to unnecessarily draw out Obama's middle name, the way right wingers did on the Internet.
That the Chief Justice should stumble over the word "faithfully" seems significant, for this is a Court whose defintion of faithfully has been the source of great consternation.
An analysis of Obama's words will have to wait until they all sink in, but their tone still rings. There was something almost clarion-like in Obama's voice today that I have never heard in previous speeches. His voice seemed to ring out with a sense of history and clarity that this nation has not heard for many a year. The word I would use for it is conviction. There was steel in the sound of that voice that perhaps only those lying in Arlington could understand.
The substance of that steel lay in values forged by history. Perhaps no President since John F. Kennedy has done such a skillful job of evoking American history and placing it in the context of the present. As with Kennedy that evocation of the past lent a strength and confidence to his words.
On CNN they kept showing the face of John Lewis. As Obama walked out Lewis whispered something to him. We may never know what Lewis said, but we can imagine that the old lion must have commented on a moment for which he had laid his life on the line. In whatever words Lewis spoke lay that moment when he lay bleeding near a bridge in Selma.
There could not have been a more appropriate person to deliver the final prayer than Joseph Lowery, who cofounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King. His poetry surpassed that of the designated poet, but it was his ending that said it all. Lowery said "Amen," and paused. Then he said "Amen" again and paused. At this point you thought he was probably finished because he paused even longer. Then with a tone that was both triumphant and defiant he said one final "Amen."
Much is already being made of Obama's walking the Bush's to the Presidential helicopter. Throughout the ceremony Bush did not evidence the grumpiness of Herbert Hoover, but rather a smiling relief in being rid of burdens he proved unable to handle. Nothing more need be said about Dick Cheney leaving the Capitol in a wheel chair.
The sea of faces on the Mall may have been the most inspirational sight of the day so far. When the cameras closed in on their faces, some in tears, you had to believe these people were here not merely because the moment was historic but because they believed in the promise of Barack Obama.