Tuesday, January 20, 2009

1.20.09

After the most interminable 2,291 days of my lifetime, George W. Bush finally left the office he disgraced and diminished as no president before him had managed to do -- not even Richard M. Nixon, who tried his damnedest, or James Buchanan, who didn't have try at all. My Bush's Last Day calendar had been patiently counting out time for the last four years or so and finally, at midnight, it just gave out. Gone, gone, gone . . . W., Dick Cheney, who looked like a hybrid of a 1960s-era James Bond villain and mean ole' Mr. Potter from "It's a Wonderful Life," Condi Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, the entire neo-con mafia, Karl Rove . . .

and those are just the ones I haven't blotted out of my memory.

Since I knew he was leaving today, I could read the "exit" interviews he's conducted over the past three weeks or so with members of the Washington "journalism" Establishment and laugh rather than scream when I read his long-ago familiar refrain of "history will vindicate" all the tough decisions he had to make as president. Peppered with such tough questions as, "Do you think you made any mistakes?" to "What's the hardest thing about being president?" to "If you have runners on first and second and no one out, you're no. 6 hitter coming up who hits into more double plays than anyone else in your line-up, do you (1) opt for the double steal to kill (possibly) the double-play or (2) encourage him to hit the ball in the air to allow the runners to tag or, at worst, simply lose one out to the infield fly rule or (3) let him swing away." No one really asked him the third question because, as any good Washington journalist knows, it would rude to ask presidents questions that would actually require them to think analytically rather than produce a pre-packaged answer suitable for prime time programming.

Today, though isn't about W and his merry band of pranksters, law-breakers, religious kooks, global warming-deniers, torturers, liars and militaristic chicken-hawks. Today, January 20, 2009, is about something much bigger.

Today at noon, a little less than 144 years after Robert E. Lee laid down his sword at Appomattox, the Civil War finally ended. There was Barack Obama, standing on the balcony of the nation's Capitol building addressing the millions who had gathered to see and hear him speak, facing Virginia, a state that, 148 years ago, headquartered the capital of the Confederacy, a state that, 50 years ago, proudly flew the banner of "massive resistance" to post-Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation; but a state that, 2 1/2 months ago, overwhelming voted for the nation's first African-American president.

I couldn't help but wonder, watching President Obama's inaugural address on television with my family, what our new president saw as he stared into the distance. Arlington Cemetery? The Iwo Jima Memorial? The Washington Monument? Or did he see the silhouette of Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front the Lincoln Memorial, imploring the hundreds of thousands gathered before him 45 years ago to dream, to reach, to reconcile . . . to better humanity. I think MLK would have had a very different response had he, at 80 years old, been asked yesterday if he thought he would see a black president in his lifetime.

"What do you mean 'think,' he might have responded. "I always believed. That is why I and everyone else did what we did."

"I got this," Obama seemed to whisper to King's ghost, orbiting the Lincoln Memorial two miles away.

* * * * * * * * * *

Barack Obama has a chance to be a very good president. I don't know that he will be a great president, not so much because he lacks the capacity for greatness -- I think he possesses a first-class mind with the temperament to match -- but because he is facing a shitstorm unparalleled in modern times. Obama has inherited a horribly conceived and even more poorly executed "War on Terror," a frayed relationship with countries that were once our allies, economic disaster at home, a nation that brags about its technological prowess yet refuses to make health care available to all of its citizens, a public education system more concerned about teaching to the test than preparing students to think and develop ideas on their own, a culture locked into a mindless "debate" on homosexuality, abortion and the perils of free thinking when there isn't a chance in hell that you can put any of those Genies back in the bottle and a country that consumes far more energy per person than any other in the world and feels little, if any, need to do anything about it.

And, of course, the latest intractable crisis in the Middle East between Israel, Hamas, the Palestinians and whoever else thinks they're right about everything whether they are or not. Like the new president needed that . . .

Remember what Johnny Sack told Tony Soprano at the end of Season Five: "Everyone want to be boss? They should only know."

Externalities will not allow Barack Obama to achieve greatness. Forget e pluribus unum (from many unto one). Ours is not a nation of all-for-one and one-for-all. Yes, there are millions and millions of people who want Obama to succeed. And there are millions more, angry about their eviction from power, angry at seeing their hold on American politics and culture loosen as a consequence of an African-American taking office, angry that the nation's demographics are making the country more open and, at the same time, more complex, angry that the old ways of doing politics have, for now, been sent to the dustbin . . . all this means that the millions who were smiling, clapping, crying and hugging on the Mall in Washington, D.C. this morning were being watched at home by millions more hellbent on seeing Obama fail. The longer he can make them wait, the better.

And he also has the advantage of following the worst president in American history. There is nowhere to go but up. If nothing else, our new president can speak in complete sentences. He also understands how particle physics applies to politics -- that you cannot divide the world up into false spheres of good and evil, right and wrong and worthy and unworthy. Everything is interconnected, and the divisions we create are simply an illusion, reflecting the choices we make. Politics is about many, many things. It is, at once, a noun, a verb, an adverb, an adjective an occupation and something that is feared, admired and, occasionally, loved. I hope that President Obama will make the right choices. That journey will require him to listen, something he already does well and something his predecessor neither did nor valued.

* * * * * * * * * *

Yesterday was a great day for the United States. I cannot not even imagine was this day meant to and for black America. I couldn't help but think back to the black men, women and kids who welcomed me into their world 40 + years ago as a child and never made me feel better or worse for being white. I understood even then that the two worlds I traveled between during my formative years in 1960s and 70s-era Atlanta, one black and one white, were different. From an early age, I never understood why white America worked so hard to deny black Americans their culture and heritage while so eagerly and proudly embracing their lineage from the European countries that, ironically enough, gladly waved good-bye to their most undesirable elements. I thought it was great, absolutely great, to see and hear President Obama proudly acknowledge his Kenyan ancestry in a capital that once enforced the rigid codes of the antebellum South and, after the Civil War, the dehumanizing racial caste system known as "Jim Crow." It astounds me to hear people diminish the life and accomplishments of President Obama -- he isn't descended directly from slaves; he had (and has) a white mother; he's "half" Caucasian (a particularly offensive comment, one that could only be made by people unfamiliar with the "One Drop Rule" that defined racial identity before the formal abolition of racial segregation in the 1960s). Compare that to the experience of George W. Bush, who had everything handed to him from Day One by a family that by any measure qualifies as part of the American aristocracy and still couldn't get anything right.

Anything.

So I suppose it makes sense that some white folks still believe it's their obligation to define who is and who isn't black in 21st century America; or who is or who isn't Latino; or Muslim; or whatever is unfamiliar to them. Really, now, it's time to let that go. We are way, way, way past the point of seeing the United States as a nation of two races, one white and one black, with subsets of ethnicities rounding it out. Language, culture, religion, food, music, custom might explain the "difference" between someone from Kenya or Cameroon or Ireland or Scotland or Egypt or Japan. White America created "black" America against the latter's will. Black America is now old enough to define its own identity without the assistance of the very same people whose track record isn't all that spectacular. Ethnic heritage, yes; "racial" identification, no.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thank you Mrs. Reagan, Mrs. Henderson, James Wright, Bill Braynon, Julian Bond, John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Sr., Melvin, Toni and Tracy Echols, Matte Driver, Lonnie Johnson, Broadway, Billy Rivers, Walter Smith, Bruce Kennemore and so many others for helping me see the see the world beyond the one I was born into 47 years ago. I can still remember the first adult conversation I had with John Lewis, the great civil rights veteran and, since 1986, congressman from Atlanta, about the larger goals of the civil rights movement. After some back and forth on the lessons he learned as a foot soldier in the movement ("I always remembered to pack a tooth brush in case I got arrested") and some clarification about how loving your fellow man didn't mean you had to necessarily like him ("No, I can't say that I liked Bull Connor,") he explained to me that King was always speaking as much, if not more, to white America than black America. By harnessing and using the power of love to speak to your enemies rather than the language of hate and the tactics of violence, King wanted white Americans to choose the path of progress rather than submit to the unwelcoming hand of force.

In November, Americans made that choice. Earlier today, President Obama stood on the shoulders of giants and thanked them for giving a different generation of Americans -- their children and their grandchildren -- the freedom to choose love over hate. A powerful moment it was, by any standard.

4 comments:

tres_arboles said...

Nice job, Gregg.

Gregg Ivers said...

Thanks, my friend -- as always.

enzo said...

Brian told me about your blog earlier today.
Nice words, I must say.
The G.W. Bush days are finally over and it feels great to know it. Your depiction of Dick Chaney could not be any better. He was the shadiest, most stubborn, manipulating Vice President, with an office and special staff I have ever heard of; if i may add. Sadly, they left a lot of trash behind them that the new administration will have to clean up. The good thing is that there is a positive feel or vibe in the air after January 20th. Maybe it is because the American people experienced their first presidential inauguration since 9/11, where everything has gone downhill ever since. The U.S. had seen happier days before that. I have high hopes for president Obama's administration. His inaugural speech confirmed that the American people chose the right leader for the job. A leader that through his words emphasized the value of all the American people he will be serving for the next four years, instead of delivering a policy making speech.
I better stop now.
have a good day!

Enzo.

Beth said...

Couldn't have said it better. Woo hoo!!