The significance of the inauguration of Barack Obama may be easily misunderstood, in part because the media have been so gleefully fixated on Obama the man, Obama the first Afro-American president, Obama the youthful echo of Kennedy, etc. It was indeed a wonderful “hingepin” moment in US history, and a watershed for minorities, and a sea change in American politics, and the coronation (however momentary) of a bona fide media star. But what was to me most remarkable and moving about the inauguration, and which tends to be underreported, was not the inauguration’s divergence from the past, but the ways, large and small, in which it honored the past, and repeated it, and paid homage to the traditions that we are just now beginning to think of as old, and ours.
It represented the forty-third time that the leadership of a confederation of states that these days happens to be the most powerful and diverse nation-state in the world has passed from one man (still) to another by virtue only of the rule of law and the civility of custom. We faltered only once, in 2000, when the scourge of litigation threatened to sully even this monument to our collective decency.
This has happened, and happened again yesterday, despite that fact that the man leaving the office and the man entering it may have nothing in common philosophically, politically, in upbringing, or now racially. They and their proxies may have been the bitterest of enemies, the most graceless antagonists; they may represent wholly different segments of the wildly polyglot populace we blithely call “the people,” yet on a particular, designated day, at a particular, designated hour, they put on their nicest suits, shave extra carefully, bring their wives and children, and stand up in front of the world and one says to the other, “I, sir, defer to you. All this that I have enjoyed and labored with, all these massively arrayed tools that have been mine to command, are now yours.” And then the first one leaves, and the second one remains. This is remarkable. It’s what brought tears to my eyes yesterday.
This honoring of that long tradition of a peaceful and –more than that– a deeply respectful transition of authority was reflected in many small moments that stick in the mind:
Michelle Obama bringing a present — in a box with a bow on it — to the front steps of the White House when she and the President-elect met the Bushes (because hey, she was visiting someone else’s house, and that’s what you do);
The conversation we will never hear between two men being driven together from the White House to the Capitol;
The Chief Justice asking “are you prepared to take the oath, Senator?” And then, twenty seconds later, “Congratulations, Mr. President.”
George W. Bush hugging –hugging!– Barack Obama just before boarding the helicopter that took him away;
The letter we will never get to read, left on the desk of the Oval Office by the man leaving for the man who would remain.
These are small moments (and there were others), but they represent something crucial, something easy to miss in the massive crowds, the shifting of the tectonic plates of history, the dawning of great new agendas. These are humans at the height of power and responsibility, being graceful. This is a wonderful thing. This is what brought tears to my eyes yesterday.