Sunday, June 28, 2009

Inauguration Day 2009

Like most of you—or, more likely, like all of you—I spent as much of Tuesday as possible in front of a screen watching the proceedings in Washington as President Obama took the oath of office and formally became our forty-fourth president. It was, regardless of how any of us may have voted in the election last November, a momentous occasion for us all…and one that was so suffused with historical significance and deep emotion that the whole spectacle was, to use the word almost literally for once, riveting. I was fourteen years old when Martin Luther King was assassinated. That we as a nation have wandered through the desert that stretches out in my mind between that moment and President Obama’s inauguration in the same forty years that our Israelite ancestors themselves moved from slavery to freedom is a very resonant and satisfying thought for me. I wonder if our ancestors, camped on the east bank of the Jordan and poised to begin the conquest, felt it just as unbelievable to consider how far they had come in how short a time as I do when I look back over these last four decades and consider the journey our country has undertaken during that time.

Much has been written comparing our new president with President Lincoln. Some of the parallels adduced are compelling, others distinctly less so. (So what if both were and are thin and tall? So are lots of people.) More interesting is that both came from elsewhere but made their political careers in Illinois, that both are lawyers, and that both served in the Illinois State Legislature before spending a single session in Congress and then going on to become president. And there are other similarities to consider as well. Both men became commanders-in-chief of the armed forces without ever having served in the military. Both won the nomination by defeating the sitting senators from New York, who they then went on to appoint as their Secretaries of State. (Lincoln’s chief rival for the Republication nomination in 1861 was New York senator William Seward.) And, of course, both men entered and now enter history inextricably bound to the question of race that have plagued our country almost from its inception.

You would think that it would be Lincoln’s first inaugural address that would provide the most compelling parallels to President Obama’s remarks on Tuesday, but I find myself far more drawn to the words of the Second Inaugural Address, which President Lincoln delivered to a war-weary nation on March 4, 1865. It was a complicated moment in American history. The Civil War was indeed drawing to a close. Within days of the inauguration, the Congress of the Confederate States would adjourn for the last time. General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox was only weeks away. The end of the fighting was clearly close.

You would have thought that it was a time for the greatest celebrations in Washington. Victory was, at long last, at hand. The Union had been preserved. The carnage was about to cease. (More Americans, about 618,000, died in the Civil War than in all the other wars our country has fought put together. By way of comparison, we suffered 112,000 casualties in the First World War and 405,000 in World War II. 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam.) And, although the thirteenth amendment that formally ended slavery would only be passed by Congress in December of that year, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, had effectively set the nation on the course that would culminate with the abolition of slavery by constitutional amendment. It was clearly a time for celebration, but President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is not especially celebratory in spirit or tone. It was a sober, somber, and pensive speech suffused with Lincoln’s thoughtful analysis of the difficult period of national reconciliation that was about to be begin. There is no trace or echo of anything like gleeful triumphalism in his remarks. If anything, just the opposite is true.

The president’s remarks were brief, taking up less then two pages in the edition I own of Lincoln’s speeches. But he does a lot in those two pages, speaking with brutal realism about the scourge of slavery and reminding Americans that the war was essentially between those who “would make war rather than let the nation survive” and those who “would accept war rather than let it perish.” He goes so far as to suggest that the brutal and bloody war about to end in victory was some sort of divine punishment for those who promoted slavery, as “the woe due to those by whom the offence came.” But then he goes on at the end of his remarks and makes his famous comment about the need to harbor malice towards none, but, instead, charity towards all. And finally he spoke these words, “Let us strive…to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” In other words, Lincoln understood (and had the courage to say aloud) that the real work was ahead, that the era of national reconciliation and reconstruction was not only not over but had not even begun. Looking out at the fractured, bleeding country as president of which he had just been re-elected, Lincoln realized that the great task before him was to heal the wounds of long years of discord, to make peace where there had been the most bitter fractiousness, to create consensus among people whose hatred for each other and each other’s philosophies of life had led to the most brutal slaughter and the most unimaginable suffering. (And I suppose he must also have had in mind the simple fact that no citizens of the southern states had participated in the presidential election he had just won and that, therefore, none of the people to whom he was announcing his intention to be so magnanimous in victory had actually voted for him, or for anyone at all.)

It was that spirit that I thought I heard in President Obama’s speech on Tuesday. It can’t have been easy for President Bush to listen to that address, and it redounds to his credit that he listened politely and with visible equanimity. The great political victory that led to Tuesday is now a matter of history; the real work of the Obama administration lies wholly in the future. And although it is probably exaggerated to compare the level of disunity in our country today with the situation that prevailed between North and South after Appomattox, it is still going to require enormous effort to put this great land of ours back on track. I heard promise in President Obama’s remarks on Tuesday, and I heard courage. But most of all I heard hope. And it was not only the president’s own hopes that came through, but I had the distinct sense that he was somehow channeling the hopes of an entire nation…for reconciliation, for reconstruction, for a renewed sense of national purpose, and for a bright and prosperous future. I felt a strange mix of emotions vying for primacy of place in my heart as I listened to the speech, but mostly I felt hopeful and very proud to be an American. I sense that many of us felt that way. Perhaps even we all did.

I know we all join together in the prayer that God bless America, and that God bless the President of the United States.

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