Politics aside, nothing I have seen or heard yet captures the historic significance of the election and inauguration of Barack Obama as president.
Some comparisons are made to Lincoln but that is a bit presumptuous, since it implies his presidency will be great too. Yes, both were unlikely Illinois lawyers who rose from obscurity. Otherwise it is an exercise in comparing apples with oranges. Lincoln lived for fourteen years in a one room cabin in Indiana, with only a handful of books. His father spent his early years chasing down runaway slaves and beating them before handing them back to their masters.
Unlike Lincoln, Barack Obama did not live in isolation. He arguably knows the world better than any other American president, for he has not only been whisked in and out of international airports and five star hotels, he has lived overseas among the people, and gone to school overseas, in Indonesia, no less, the largest Islamic nation on earth.
A better comparison would be with Andrew Jackson, our seventh president. The first six were all American aristocrats, if you will. They all hailed from either Virginia or Massachusetts. At the time, American power was an oligarchy of plantation, slave owning, gentlemen or New England third generation patriot patricians, from the same family. Jackson, a man of the people, and a man of “the west,” as in Tennessee, awakened the American dream. Anything was possible.
But even the comparison to Andrew Jackson is pale and blurry.
One really has to go outside of presidential history to find a comparison. Neil Armstrong landing on the moon?
I know that sounds a bit much to some but remember that many of the men who wrote and debated and voted for those soaring words – “all men are created equal” – owned African American slaves, men, women and children. Their words and concepts were revolutionary and helped inspire changes throughout the centuries and throughout the world. And yet the authors were seemingly blind to their inconsistency.
It was much like Edmund Hillary, being declared the first man to the top of Mt. Everest. His accompanying Sherpa didn’t count. He was a servant.
There are high expectations for the presidency of Barack Obama, because he follows an unpopular president and because the economy has fallen so fast and so far that it is assumed it will rebound sometime in the next four years and he will garner the glory. The second coming of FDR, his team confidently pronounces.
But only one president, of the last eight, left office with any degree of dignity or with any sense of success. Only one. And only four of the last eight were re-elected. One of those resigned, one was impeached. Another is leaving office with one of the lowest approval ratings in modern history.
So the election and inauguration of Barack Obama is a great moment in history. And maybe his presidency will be too. We hope so. And wish him and the country well. The odds are not good. His inauguration could very well be the high water mark of his life and his administration.
Even so, whatever happens, good or bad, the election and inauguration of Barack Obama is a singular success. It is in the history books, a done deal. It is a success story for the nation, the last chapter in a long journey. It is an accomplishment, shared by all who voted for him and for all who voted against him on the issues, not motivated by race.
America, late to free its slaves, and late to grant equal rights to its citizens – a story that has earned us shame throughout the world – has now leapfrogged everyone else. Most of the world is still layered with social strata. A Barack Obama could not now be elected in any of the Western European nations who have for so long despised us for our social struggles. Now, the ball is suddenly in their court. Our struggle is over. American is finally free.
Here is a link to Doug’s recent appearance on Katie Couric’s prime time inaugural special on CBS.