As it turned out, our bus never gave so much as a glance in Philadelphia’s direction, instead speeding southward through a remarkably placid countryside, at times awash in dappled sunlight, at others pummeled by driving snow squalls. Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, none made more than a passing impression until we approached the outskirts of Baltimore, a city where I’ve actually spent some time and was curious, almost anxious, to see again.
Obama had been here three days earlier, following a similar route to ours, only by train, and stopping at each of the major cities to address the crowds. My Baltimore friends had spent much of the day waiting in the cold for the President-to-be and cheering wildly for the speech they finally got to hear. I wished I had been there, wished I could have seen how Obama’s message of hope and change had played in a city so desperate for either of those things.
Baltimore could serve as a poster child for urban decay, but could serve equally well to illustrate the indomitability of the human spirit. Against a backdrop of a ruined economy, endemic crime, and corrupt and incompetent administration, there were those still who loved this place, who proclaimed it by way of park bench logos to be “the greatest city in America.” Young artists and musicians enthused about the cheap rents, but also about the sense of endless possibility.
Obama spoke their language but then upped the ante, not asking in so many words as JFK had what they were going to do for their country, but essentially delivering that precise challenge. This new government, he seemed to say, will not be about the benefits you might hope to receive but about the contributions you will have the opportunity to make, not about patting ourselves on the back for our brilliant accomplishment in having been born or become Americans, but about what we will do to show ourselves worthy of that legacy.
In my life I’ve never seen an American political leader receive the adulation Obama has. Kennedy came close, but even then only by dying. I suppose Lincoln or FDR in their day might have inspired equal or greater devotion, but in my own time I’ve mainly witnessed a succession of mediocrities occasionally interrupted by an ephemeral flash of competence and respectability. If America were Rome, might this be akin to the string of venal and half-witted rulers, with an average shelf life of about 18 months, who sleepwalked the Empire through its final days?
Where might Obama fit into this equation? As a Trajan or Hadrian, who restored good governance to Rome after a shaky half century that had seen the likes of Caligula and Nero? As a Diocletian or Constantine, who brought a fading Empire back from the brink and postponed its demise by at least another century? I resolved to ask Bella’s opinion at the first opportunity.
Bella was the main reason this trip was possible. Though I’d contemplated coming to DC for the inauguration from the moment Obama claimed victory in November, the cost and unavailability of hotel rooms alone had seemed sufficient to put the kibosh on any such plan. It was only last week when I remembered that Bella, a university lecturer in ancient history would be coming to Washington about this time to take up a research fellowship, accompanied by her partner Danny, one of my oldest and best English friends.
A quick email interchange revealed that they’d be arriving the night before the inauguration and produced an unsolicited invitation to stay with them at the Georgetown flat the university had provided for them. I hesitated, thinking it might be a bit much to pop in on them during their first night in a new city and country, but then reasoned on the other hand that I could help them get their bearings and act as a sort of guide to the events about to unfold, the likes of which, I felt quite sure, they would never have witnessed in their native land.
The English as a general rule just don’t do great outpourings of patriotism, or collective emotion of any kind, which is why the dramatic displays of public grief over the death of Princess Diana had come as such a shock to the national psyche. When a British Prime Minister, even a much loved or hated one, is unseated, there’s no great hubbub about it. He or she simply packs their bags and vacates the premises, while the new PM, following a ritual visit to the Queen, simply shows up the following morning and goes to work.
I was living in London in 1997 when the election of Tony Blair put an end to 18 years of Conservative rule. While many households, ours included, stayed up most of the night to exult and toast the election results, there was nothing to compare with the exuberant street scenes that greeted Obama’s victory. The next morning dawned warm and sunny – statistical anomaly at any time of year in Britain – and as we waited for a bus we joked about Labour already having sorted out the notoriously unreliable weather.
But then the bus didn’t turn up when it should have, and within ten minutes we were back to more characteristic carping about how this new lot were probably no better than the old lot, and that bus service, like the weather , would only continue to get worse, never better. Ten years later, bus service had against all odds improved, but not much else; the weather was if anything worse than ever, and the voters seemed poised to vote Labour out of power every bit as ignominiously as they had the Tories.
“But this time things will be different” seems to be a mantra for Americans, one that will perennially distinguish them from the British, and which regularly crops up in the American part of my sensibilities, only to butt up uncomfortably against the layers of cynicism, irony and detachment acquired during my years in London. Like, I suspected, any sane person, I wanted to believe that Obama marked not just a new beginning, but a total departure from the paths of noisy desperation trod by my country these past – God, how many years had it been now since hope or optimism of any kind were seen as anything but a sucker’s game?
With a start I realized that our anticipated stop at Baltimore had amounted to no more than a flying visit to a travel plaza by the side of an expressway, many miles from anything resembling the Baltimore I knew, and that we were already speeding along toward the outskirts of Washington.