Way back in November I started grousing about why, having elected a new President, we had to wait two and a half months for him to take office. In Britain, and in most other countries with a parliamentary system, the new Prime Minister goes straight to work the morning after the election.
It's tradition, of course; our lengthy interregnum (it used to be considerably longer, as some of you will know; until halfway through FDR's Presidency, Inauguration Day wasn't until the 4th of March) was established at a time when our newly elected leaders had to make their way to Washington on horseback over uncertain roads in the dead of winter. And of course there was (and still is) that ridiculous rigmarole with the Electoral College: regardless of what happened the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, a new President isn't actually elected until the middle of December.
Never mind, though, the waiting is nearly over now, waiting that has been especially frustrating and fraught with anxiety this time around as a leaderless and seemingly rudderless country has continued to stagger toward financial Armageddon. Outgoing Presidents understandably diminish in significance as the time for their departure nears, but Bush has plumbed new depths in the lame duck Olympics, presiding over what might be more properly dubbed a zombie administration. Dead as a doornail yet still twitching, still capable of running amok and wreaking havoc.
In contrast to the unholy presence still stalking the White House, we have a President in waiting who, for the first time in many people's memory, looks, acts and speaks like a President. I know some of you felt that Clinton fit this bill, but while he was more adequate to the task than most, he never fully convinced me. The first Bush, while downright statesmanlike when compared with his son, was still a bumbling martinet that someone memorably described as the human equivalent of post-nasal drip. And as for the present Bush, well, the best that can be said for him is that he's lowered the standards of governance to a point where a Kang and Kodos duumvirate could look appealing.
I've had the TV on in the background all afternoon as Obama's train journeyed down the Eastern Seaboard on its way to Washington, and I stopped writing to listen to his speech in Baltimore. I don't mind admitting that the man had me in tears. Maybe I'm entering my second childhood, but I haven't been so inspired, so filled with hope and anticipation, since as a starstruck 13 year old I waited for John F. Kennedy to mount the Capitol steps.
If anything, I'm more impressed with Obama. If he hasn't quite reached the rhetorical heights that JFK soared to, he's getting very close, and I find his overall message more consistent and substantive. Watching him pull together a governing coalition when, at least on paper, none is needed has been a wonder to behold; it's getting harder by the day to find even a Republican who has much bad to say about the man.
With the exception, of course, of right wing talk radio. "The radicals have taken over," Sean Hannity bellows, but he barely seems to have his heart in it. Even Rush Limbaugh sounds resigned to a near-term future of growing irrelevance. This could all change, and quickly, if Obama makes a spectacular mistake early on, but so far the man has barely put a foot wrong. It's almost scary, in fact, to see the awe and devotion he commands. I don't think there's been an American politician in my lifetime, any and all of the Kennedys included, who came close. I suppose one can't help wondering what would happen should he choose to use that power for evil purposes, but part of his strength is that on one wants to think of him as being capable of such a thing.
Obama has done a superb job of convincing us that he plans to be President of all America, and that being the First Black President is almost incidental to him. As it may well be, but it's hardly incidental to the tens of thousands of African-Americans who turned out to watch his train come through or to hear him speak in Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore. Or who are already gathering on the Mall in anticipation of Tuesday's swearing-in. An enduring image for me will be the husky black man who stood alongside the train tracks somewhere in Maryland as the President-elect's train came rolling through with Obama and Biden waving to the cheering crowds.
Slightly rough-hewn and wearing a peacoat and watch cap, he could have been a warehouseman or a dock worker, or the slightly menacing character you might consider crossing the street to avoid if you're out alone late at night. He stood watching impassively until just before Obama came level with him, and then suddenly, somewhat awkwardly, pulled off his watch cap and stood there bareheaded in the January chill until the train had passed.
What I'm getting at is that this man did not look like someone in the habit of taking his hat off for anyone, had probably not planned on taking it off for Obama, and yet was caught up in the moment just as so many of us, of all colors and communities and religions and parties, were caught up and lifted up by a President-to-be who, rather than pander to our base self-interest, spoke to what is noble and admirable in us as a people, who rather than offer us a chance to line our pockets and feather our nests, challenged us to look more deeply into ourselves and what we are capable of offering to one another.
I normally avoid like the plague any reference, other than caustic, to the hippie songs and sentiments of my youth, but it's hard not to be reminded of that line advising writers and critics to "keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again." Something momentous is happening in America, something potentially more momentous than anything I can recall, and where it will end is anybody's guess ("Don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin"), but it's impossible to deny that the times indeed are a-changing. Six months, a year or several from now we may be moaning that it was not at all the sort of change we'd bargained for, but for the moment I'd prefer to suspend disbelief and cynicism and let myself get caught up in this great national (and worldwide, really) outpouring of hope and faith.
With that in mind, I'll be leaving for Washington myself on Monday, intent on somehow being a part of it all. I don't have tickets to any of the events, and chances are I'll never get close enough even to see the new President in the flesh, but I want to be there nonetheless, to be in my own small way part of history. 41 years ago, acting on a similar impulse, I jumped into a friend's car and rode 16 hours so I could be there for the siege of the Pentagon in October 1967. At the time I was part of a ragtag army of disaffected youth who openly espoused the destruction of America; today I travel with a far mightier army, one far more representative of the true nature and spirit of this nation, come to celebrate and save it.