Standing With Obama

His reference to the strict segregation rules that would have prevented his dad having dinner in any white only restaurant just steps from the Capitol a few decades back, showed the distance America has traveled. The immigrant experience and a new America came together in the most powerful way possible on the steps of Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning around noon. I was delighted to stand among the millions who stood where no one had ever stood before - listening to a black man become president of America. It was a powerful experience, made more real for me by the tears being shed to my left and right by African Americans who never thought they would see this day. Even the bone chilling cold and extraordinary security measures which made lining up to enter the sacred arena a huge task did not faze them. Many, especially elderly and very young, turned away, unable to wait any longer in the biting cold. But it did not faze them. Even the blithering chief justice who managed to stumble over words that every school kid could learn in 10 minutes did not take anything away from their joy and their expectation. When Obama grinned and looked back at his kids during a recital by Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman (did they really play what sounded very like a version of "Lord of the Dance" in the middle of the set, or was I just hallucinating?), the crowd oohed and ahhed like they were looking at their own favorite son. When the new president stood up to take the oath of office the sharp intake of breath all around me was audible. This was the moment they had waited for. Like the Irish in 1960 who saw their own faces and families in John F. Kennedy and what he represented, the harsh road from the Famine ships to the White House, now African Americans saw the same. Most were descendants of slaves brought in chains to these shores. They endured. Now one of their own, whose own grandfather was jailed and tortured by the British in Kenya after he joined the fight to achieve independence there, had become the leader of the western world. Bliss it was to be alive, as Wordsworth once stated. Obama did not waste time on niceties. Most inauguration speeches are aspirational, full of kind words about predecessors, safe, more about the power of oratory than the substance. Obama was different. He called up the ghost of George Washington and the founders of America and talked about how they had insisted on the civil liberties we all now enjoy, even though they were framed in time of great peril. He tore into his predecessor George W. Bush and his abdication of civil rights and advocacy of torture. He tore into him on allowing the financial meltdown to occur on his watch. He tore into him on allowing low standards in high places. And at the end he ushered him gracefully off into political oblivion, shepherding him to the helicopter to catch his flight to Texas. It was a steel fist in a velvet glove, a device we will see a lot more of from Obama in the months and years ahead. Make no mistake about it, under the smiling demeanor and soothing words is one tough customer. Just ask Hillary Clinton. America needs him. The times we face, as he noted, are fraught with risk. The storm clouds have gathered and the people are crying out for a leader. In President Barack Obama we have found one. On the early morning train to Washington, D.C. from New York, which seemed to stop in every hamlet along the way, passengers swapped stories like old friends. The common refrain was hard times, tougher days and a deep and heartfelt need for leadership. The two Irish women from New York who sat opposite me talked about it; so did the Dutch man and the English couple who had come over especially from Europe to witness the historic day. The world is waiting for leadership, and Obama has the ability to inspire unseen in any leader since President John F. Kennedy. Despite all the adulation, it will be a lonely watch for him many times over the next four years and likely eight. The expectations are sky high, and he is only one man. If there is one thing we have learned in the current crisis, it is to demystify the seeming super skills of the financial titans and political leaders who led us into this mess. We realize they are just as fallible, if not more so, than the rest of us. "Nobody knows nuttin'," as Yogi Berra might say. Obama, too, will have his drawbacks. He is impossibly confident and assured, and no doubt there will be days when those qualities are strongly confronted. Yet his legacy will endure. I saw it in the delighted face of the little toddler beside me who screamed with delight every time Obama's name was mentioned on the big jumbotron. It was there too in the weary faces of some around me already fighting what are probably the toughest times since the Depression. President Obama gives them hope and a place at last to hang their hat. That place is the White House, which is now Obama's House. And now, America is a much better place because of it.

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