Sunday, February 15, 2009

Washington Journal

The Torch Has Been Passed

President Barack Hussein Obama has now taken the oath of office, concluding with the words, “So help me God.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the first Roman Catholic chief justice, administered the oath. Forty-eight years have passed since John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, concluded the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution, as have all presidents since Franklin Roosevelt and most before, with the words “So help me God.” President Kennedy began his remarks immediately thereafter with a specific reference to this oath, thereby reassuring Protestant America that he was no different from those who came before:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-- symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.

Religion was on everyone’s mind during the election of 1960, but race was also a decisive factor. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. had intended to vote for Richard Nixon because, like many other Protestant clergymen of that day, he did not think that a Roman Catholic should be president. Then his son, Martin Jr., was arrested in Atlanta on October 26, 1960 at a lunch counter sit-in. After several days, the merchants involved dropped the charges and everyone, some 280 students plus Dr. King, were released.

Except that it was discovered that Dr. King had violated his parole from a previous arrest, for driving in Georgia with an Alabama license. So he was taken, in chains, to a state prison. Many feared for his life under such circumstances. This obviously came at a critical time in a close election. While Vice-President Nixon chose not to mention the matter, Senator Kennedy made a phone call to Mrs. King and brother Robert made some lawyerly inquiries of the authorities. King was released. Then Martin Senior spoke to the press:

“Because this man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter-in-law’s eyes, I’ve got a suitcase of votes, and I’m going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap.”

Forty-eight years later, that suitcase has grown to immense proportions.

President Obama’s entire life, from conception and birth to the present, has taken place in those forty-eight years since John F. Kennedy brought the nation to its feet with his remarkable address on a similarly cold and sunny winter day. The Cold War was at its utmost intensity. Only one sentence of that remarkable address dealt with domestic policy. The rest focussed on our struggle with the Soviet Union, with Marxism, international communism, the specter that had been haunting Europe for over a century. Yet remarkable changes soon swept the country unleashed by the energetic and charismatic young president.

On that January 20, 1961, I was in the fourth grade at Sanford E. Merrill Elementary School in Park Ridge, Illinois. I walked home for lunch that winter day, as did all the kids in the school. We all lived within a mile of this red-brick school with a classical portico for a front door and a framed photograph of Sanford E. Merrill, who I believe was superintendent of schools in some distant decade, in the entryway. There were two classrooms for each grade, K through Six. Mom had the television on when I walked in the door and we, along with my brother, who was in the sixth grade, watched the inaugural parade as we ate lunch. I remember images of the President’s motorcade leaving the Capitol and PT-109 on a float parading down Pennsylvania Avenue accompanied by crew members and sailors in uniform.

A child of nine today is as far removed from that event as I was then from the inauguration of President Wilson in 1913. In the following forty-eight years, the United States went from being a potential world power to being a superpower that had twice landed expeditionary forces on the continent of Europe and welcomed them home victorious. The United States had put Europe back on its feet and was unquestionably the leader of the free world yet faced a powerful and belligerent coalition of opponents led by the Soviet Union, whose massive army had crushed Nazi Germany only fifteen years before.

From 1961 until today, we have seen our old adversary, the Soviet Union disappear and Red China join the practitioners of capitalism. A new adversary, terrorist Islam, has arisen. We also find ourselves in the midst of an almost unimaginable and barely explicable economic crisis. We have made extraordinary changes in our society and culture, probably greater than those made in the previous forty-eight years. Women are working in greater numbers and higher pay scales. African-Americans are accepted at levels of society and government. The sexual revolution took off in the 1960s, and proceeds apace.

Along with the giddying pace of social change, there is great concern for the survival of local customs and institutions in the age of the internet, much argument over the role of religious figures, institutions and ideas in public life, much concern about the ability of government and education to accommodate the unceasing and vertiginous waves of technological and cultural change. At the local level, people are as concerned as ever about schools, how to prepare children for the future while giving them a sense of the nation’s past, how to achieve the appropriate ethnic, cultural, racial, linguistic and economic mix, and at what price of transporting kids to and fro, and whose decision this is, what role the courts play in deciding who decides and what.

How many children today walk home from school to eat a lunch prepared by their mothers? Is this good or bad?

At this time, along with much soul-searching, finger-pointing and trepidation over said economic crisis, and other crises, and after a seemingly interminable election campaign, the American people have entrusted their leadership to this tall, handsome man from Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia, southern California, New York City, Cambridge and Chicago, a man as close to being the American Everyman as anyone could imagine. How will a child of nine today look back on this presidency in 2056?

I have not written much about this new president because I am still having trouble believing all that has happened since he announced his campaign some two years ago. Just witnessing the transition that began in November has been unbelievable enough. Suddenly, when his eight years were almost up, here was a gracious and communicative President Bush. Where had this man been all these years? I could not help wondering about a presidency that might have been. He promised to be a uniter, not a divider, way back when, remember?

Now, several weeks after the inauguration, the focus is on the presidency that is and will be. Barack Obama looks like a president, talks like a president and walks like a president. He seems supremely comfortable in his new role, as does his family. William Kristol, a sharp-tongued conservative commentator, has written admiringly of Obama’s political talent. I do not know the story behind his departure from the editorial page of the New York Times, but he seems to be signaling that he will find other things to do for a while and wishes this president well.

There will, of course, be plenty of opposition to his policies. There already is. One cannot be successful without creating some opposition and one cannot expect a president to change the attitude and behavior of the opposition party. But by sounding a consistent theme and maintaining a consistent public persona, a president can accomplish much. There is every reason to believe that Obama is embarking on a presidency of the scale of Eisenhower’s, Reagan’s or Clinton’s in terms of consistent personal popularity.

Comparisons to President Kennedy are inevitable at this point, with Obama’s youth, athleticism, oratory, Ivy-League education and Ivy-League retainers. Back in 1993, when another very smart Democrat took office, many commentators noted the Vietnam disaster that followed the Kennedy presidency, brought on by the best and brightest of the Kennedy brain trust, the very advisers who had so admirably managed the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet no major national disaster occurred on Clinton’s watch. He was a popular president and his economic policies worked so well that they helped him to weather the self-inflicted wounds of his personal life.

Sixteen years later similar concerns have been raised by that school of thought that presumes minimalism to be safer than bold attempts at sweeping change. It is worth noting then, that the Vietnam debacle really unfolded after Kennedy was dead and that his advisers and President Johnson were following the conventional wisdom of the day that Communism had to be met and defeated wherever it reared its ugly head. America’s entire foreign policy establishment initially supported sending combat troops to Vietnam, as did most newspaper editorials, Time magazine and many others.

As an adult now of fifty-seven, I would not trade those thousand wonderful, giddy days of the Kennedy presidency for any other time in my life, whatever came afterward. If the Obama presidency is only half as inspiring, it will be a success.

Now President Obama faces the most severe combination of foreign and domestic crises since Franklin Roosevelt. He has a faltering economy and two shooting wars on his hands and there is no consensus about how to proceed. His greatest challenges lie in countries that no one thought particularly important back in 1961. He will need all the help he can get.

Which brings me back to where I began.

Much has been made of the fact that a conservative white Christian clergyman and a liberal black Christian clergyman, both Protestants, offered invocation and benediction on January 20th, 2009. I thought they each spoke well, but could have said more by saying less. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Jews have been offering prayer and benediction at inaugurations since President Roosevelt instituted the practice in 1937. Perhaps he decided that the nation could use all the help it could get in the middle of the Depression. His choice for the first invocation: The Rev. ZeBarney Phillips, Chaplain of the Senate; for the benediction, Father John A. Ryan of Catholic University.

President Eisenhower began his inaugural address in 1953 by asking everyone to bow their heads while he prayed aloud. He did this, astoundingly, when he was technically not a Christian. He was baptized several days later, on February 1, at National Presbyterian Church, then on Connecticut Avenue. President Kennedy’s inauguration featured no less than three invocations, led by Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, followed by Iakovos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America, followed by John Barclay, Pastor of Central Christian Church, Austin, Texas. A benediction by Rabbi Nelson Glueck, President of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, concluded the proceedings. Remember it was even colder that day.

Everything that happens on inauguration day (except for the taking of the oath, which must happen) is the prerogative of the President. The President is free to say “So help me God,” or not; place his hand on a Bible, or not; pray, or not; hold a parade, or not; patronize inaugural balls, or not. Should an atheist gain the highest office of the land, (s)he is free to affirm the oath and leave the rest out. If a strict Baptist is elected president, he does not have to dance.

This first African-American president has chosen to reassure the approximately 90% of Americans who profess a belief in God or identify with a religion that he shares their faith and respects their observance.

It’s a free country.