Better Angels: The Inauguration of Barack Obama

There was a moment in the third and final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain when I had a powerful vision from my youth: Muhammad Ali, the great heavyweight boxer and even greater civil rights icon, standing triumphantly over one of his fallen foes. It didn't matter which one--Sonny Liston or Joe Frazier or George Chuvalo--but there was Ali, tall and strong, black and oh-so-beautiful, beads of sweat shimmering on his face, a force of hope and passion, his chest out, proud and invincible.

It's an indelible image. Two generations later, at Hofstra University, there was Obama pitted against the venerable McCain, in many ways Obama's perfectly crafted dramatic antithesis, who had promised to "whip" Obama's ass that evening. Talk is cheap, of course (and even cheaper in the ring), and McCain's political karma had finally caught up to him. Obama stood there tall and confident, and, yes, black and beautiful, parrying McCain's verbal assaults, floating like a butterfly, if not necessarily stinging like a bee (that is not Obama's way), looking every bit as proud and invincible as Ali, four decades earlier.

If Obama is post-racial and post-partisan, then he is also post-confrontational. His power rests not so much in his ability to dominate and tyrannize (he had no knockout punch in the debates), but in the clarity of his vision, the power of his integrity and his ability to persuade.

There he stood, before an international audience, triumphant and transformative, that magnificent, all-encompassing smile of his radiating hope and promise for people around the world. I was sure then that his victory in the November 4 election was secure and his presidency inevitable. "It's all over but the crying for John McCain," I wrote afterwards in a column for a New York newspaper. "The Presidency will never be his."

Overconfident? Perhaps. Prophetic? I held my breath for the remaining weeks of the campaign. But the image of a triumphant Ali morphed into a triumphant Obama remained firmly sequestered in my mind.

Barack Obama. Little more than four years ago, few of us had ever heard the name. It seemed to sound far too much like Osama to ever ring presidential. In this country. In the aftermath of 9/11. In the era of Bush & Cheney.

But shortly after the 2004 Democratic Convention, my good friend and longtime film-making partner, Mark Schwartz (from Chicago, of course), sent me an internet link to Obama's rousing keynote address at the convention, the speech that would elevate Obama to national prominence, that would make him a legitimate contender.

I remember being struck early on in the speech by Obama's plea for bipartisanship, by how positive and articulate he was, by the way he moved his audience. It was a startling piece of oratory, the most remarkable I had heard in decades. If it didn't quite carry the depth and gravitas of a Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, it had an eloquence, a rhetorical beauty to it, that transcended the banality of traditional electoral politics.

Little did we know then that it was Barack Obama's national audition, and he passed it as few political figures of this, or any other, generation ever would. He unveiled his unique journey that night in Boston--and wove it delicately into the fabric of the American Dream in a manner that was both moving and compelling. Barack Obama was the real deal.

"Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely," he began, his trademark self-effacing humor and understatement already firmly cast. "My father was a foreign student, born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack."

In what became the buzz phrase of the 2008 election cycle, political operatives from both major parties were asserting that it's no longer policy positions on issues that elect presidents, it's the way in which the electorate relates to their "personal narrative" that ultimately decides national elections. It's a decidedly jaundiced, if not outright cynical, view of the American political process, one in which a momentary faux pas or a resurfaced skeleton can destroy one's public image instantaneously.

In purely Jungian terms, Obama had forged his personal story into a powerful American archetype during his keynote address, and in so doing, set the foundation for his compelling storyline in the next presidential race.

As I re-watched the speech again last week on YouTube, I was brought to tears by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia as a younger, leaner, and, one can only imagine, far more naïve young man walked comfortably onto the stage in Boston, his smile radiant, while the Impressions' "Keep on Pushing" (written by the incomparable Curtis Mayfield) provided the soundtrack to his entrance.

Obama pulled off a fascinating juggling act in that speech. He at once affirmed the founding principles and values of this country, while also affirming its shortcomings.
Obama was about unity, not division. "It is that fundamental belief--I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper--that makes this country work."

Obama was building towards an oratorical apocalypse. "It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: 'E pluribus unum,' out of many, one.'"


"Well, I say to them tonight, there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America.... There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

The delegates rose to their feet. Obama drove it on home to a pounding crescendo: "In the end, that's what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism, or do we participate in a politics of hope?... the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too."

Obama brought down the house. He had solidified his own brand that evening and established his personal narrative. It was not traditional Democratic Party rhetoric. It was an affirmation of country that transcended partisan divisions: That we, as a people, are a whole greater than the sum of our parts.

The politics of hope, indeed.

I was moved enough by Obama's speech to pick up a copy of his provocative biographical ruminations, Dreams from My Father. I was certain that the keynote address in Boston would not be the last we were to hear from him, that he would be a rising star in national politics. Little did I know how fast and how far.

But it wasn't until three years later, in the fall of 2007, that I really came to believe in his candidacy, that I wanted to walk with him, to borrow a phrase from Alice Walker, on his "journey of new possibility."

My 92-year-old mother--the daughter of Italian immigrants and who, as a child, lived among those who had been born into slavery--had suffered the first health challenge of her life and I was staying with her at nights, nursing her back to health. She likes to go to sleep watching the late-night talk shows, and one evening, as I was putting her to bed, out walks Barack Obama on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Obama was already a candidate for the Presidency by then (an "underdog" in his own words), had been working the ground in Iowa, but it was before the campaign had really taken off. And I watched my mother watch Obama.

It was a fascinating moment. My mother paid close attention, laughed at Obama's jokes about Dick Cheney (he and Cheney are distant cousins, "not kissin' cousins"), but she was impressed by the way he reached out to everyone. "I like that guy," she said. "What's his name?" It took her a while to get it, but she did.

I knew then that he had a shot.

Obama laid out some interesting groundwork that night. Many of the themes that we would hear over and over in his campaign were tested out that evening. At the time, Leno noted, most pundits were declaring Hillary Clinton a "shoe-in" for the Democratic nomination. "Hillary," Obama responded with perfect comedic timing, "is not the first politician in Washington to declare 'mission accomplished' a little too soon." He had deftly managed to link Hillary to George Bush. The line elicited a rousing ovation. But the theme he kept pounding that night was bipartisanship: "I want to be the president of all the people of the United States, not just the Democrats." More applause.

My mom has voted mostly Republican all the way back to Wendell Willkie (she claims to have voted for FDR in '36), but there was something about Obama that moved her, that resonated with her deeply, that let her know she could trust her grandchildren to his leadership. And half way through her 93rd year, 72 long years after she had cast her first vote in a presidential election, she voted for Obama. And she has every intention of watching him inaugurated next week.

During the dog days of the presidential campaign this past July, shortly after Clinton had finally conceded the nomination to him, the New Yorker magazine ran a largely overlooked profile of Obama by Ryan Lizza focusing on his career as a young politician in Chicago. (It was largely overlooked because it also carried the controversial cartoon cover of Obama and his wife Michelle looking every bit like insurgent Muslim radicals).

I re-read the piece again in early December, as Obama was into the process of naming his cabinet, and immediately after he named Rick Warren, the right-wing evangelical founder of Saddleback Church in Orange County, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration as the 44th President of these United States.

Obama has written extensively about his early days as a community organizer in Chicago in Dreams from My Father, and, of course, about his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate in his other best-seller, The Audacity of Hope. But he has been mostly silent about his early days in electoral politics.

The article noted, quite accurately I would argue, that Obama's swift rise in Chicago (and Illinois) politics, came with a bit of a price tag attached. That Obama was relentlessly ambitious goes without saying. (You don't become President of the United States without a great deal of drive and a healthy ego.) That he was also opportunistic and willing to step over people who had once been loyal to him was a little harder for me to discover, given the way I had chosen to construct him as a political candidate during the nearly two years of his presidential campaign.

The article also addressed Obama's very direct ties to current Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, presently under federal investigation on corruption charges, and to a host of other shady Chicago politicians. No one gets through the muck of Chicago politics without getting a little soiled. It's the nature of that particular beast.

But after re-reading the article, it put Obama's choice of Warren--and some of his other cabinet choices--into clearer focus for me. Obama is also an ideological "liberal," though not in the typical sense of the word as it is used in American politics, but his realpolitik has always been far more centrist than one would imagine from his rhetoric and from the political pulse of his campaign.

I've had my say about the Warren selection and Obama's willingness to throw those of us who fought Warren on Prop. 8 in November under the bus with this selection. And I have made my peace with it. Obama's religious affiliations (including Reverend Wright) have always been politically calculated. Warren reached out to Obama early in his campaign, invited him to Saddleback, and Obama is simply repaying a political debt. It sends an important signal about the way that Obama intends to govern that we dismiss at our own peril.

Moreover, much has been made of Obama's reading of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about Abraham Lincoln fashioning "a team of rivals" in his cabinet. Far to the contrary, he has fashioned a team of centrists, one that includes George Bush's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and a host of other pro-war hawks (including Hillary Clinton) and Wall Street money managers. There is a significant chasm between the very real movement that put Obama in the White House and the government he has assembled. And that chasm cannot be spanned by hyperbole and rhetoric.

In addition to Obama's close proximity to the Blagojevich scandal, Obama's recent road to the White House has gotten more than a bit bumpy around the likes of Bill Richardson and others. He has made mistakes in recent weeks and he will certainly make more.

As the Obama entourage moves from election to inauguration--as our nation moves beyond the national nightmare that was Bush & Cheney--we all need to roll up our sleeves and participate in facilitating the change we can all believe in. One man or woman--or a small group of them congregated in Washington, D.C.--do not a meaningful revolution make.

Remember Obama's slogan: Yes, we can. Note the plural. Democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. A great deal of our nation's destiny is resting now on one young man's shoulders. We all need to help him carry that weight. Those who argue that this is not the time for dissent do both Obama and this country a disservice. Obama comes to us not with a halo on his head, but with soil on his hands. Let us never confuse the two. Realpolitik is a contact sport; it's not a dance. And while his governance may be centrist, we must insist that he never abandon the progressive ideals that inspired so many of us to support him. That is our challenge; not his. As Alice Walker wisely observed in a recent letter to Brother Obama, "We are the ones we have been waiting for."

It is impossible to deny the historic significance of the inauguration taking place this Tuesday in our nation's capitol. It ranks with the inaugural transformations of Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, I would argue, given the crises that presently face this nation both at home and abroad, that only Lincoln's came at a moment of such resounding import in American history.

Lincoln's inauguration in 1861, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War, was a mostly somber affair. Lincoln knew what he was up against. He made no pretense to the contrary. (That he staunchly defended slavery in his first inaugural address should provide concern and caution to Obama as he crafts his own address for Tuesday.)

But in the concluding passages to his remarks on that cold and grey day in Washington, Lincoln called upon the American people to dig deep into their souls and find the "better angels of our nature." It was a powerful calling.

Lincoln, of course, was not able to hold the nation together. It took four long and violent years of bitter bloodshed to fashion the union whole again.

Make no mistake about it. Obama's challenges are far graver than Lincoln's. Poverty and violence threaten us around the world and here at home. To borrow an oft-quoted phrase from Yeats, "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned." Our country has been devastated by the last eight years of George W. Bush--our economy, our health care system, our national security, our standing in the world--and Obama was elected not because he is a nuts-and-bolts administrator, but because he projected a new and emboldened vision of national leadership.

As Obama takes his oath of office on Tuesday, may he and this country be guided by those "better angels" upon whom Lincoln called. If ever there were a president who was capable of being so blessed, it is he.

In these dark and troubled times, Barack Obama has forged a new politics of hope on the American landscape. May that hope be realized and may his inspiration be truly transformative. And may the present American nightmare be restored, once again, into a vital and viable American Dream.