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Lincoln and helicopters

January 21, 2009

Inauguration weekend was filled with very self-conscious Lincoln references. From Obama’s train ride from Philly to Washington to Tom Hanks’ Academy Awards-style tribute on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the swearing-in with the Lincoln bible, the theme was clear: in a moment of great national hardship and war (and domestic strife? though the culture wars have, thus far, been less bloody than the Civil War), a far-sighted president takes over to renew the nation, promising both return to and, ultimately, fulfillment of our founding ideals. Of course, the symbolism was most meaningful because the inauguration of our first black president is possible thanks to Lincoln’s legacy.

So, following on this theme, I was secretly hoping that Obama’s speech on Tuesday would take inspiration from Lincoln’s second inaugural: the concise, beautiful, biblical, 700-word invocation to continue the fight for liberty and for the Union (“Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away”, and later “With malice toward none, with charity toward all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…”).

My stylistic hopes weren’t realized – Obama’s speech wasn’t a towering statement of moral purpose made in four paragraphs or less. But what did come out in his 20 minute talk was, perhaps, even better. It was a declaration of principles, but of principles translated concretely into policy. Obama got everything right : from his shout out to the Muslim world to his rejection of the “false choice” between civil liberties and security to his promise to “return science to its rightful place.”

Immediately afterward, the New York Times headlining article emphasized Obama’s call to personal responsibility as the theme of the speech. This was certainly an important element, and one that held appeal for some conservatives. For me, though, the speech’s tagline was this: “For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”Eloquently, precisely, Obama repudiated the small-mindedness, partisanship, and backwardness that have plagued American politics of late. It has seemed so often over the last eight years that, instead of looking forward to the problems of the 21st century, we have been not just standing still, but moving backward. Instead of recognizing the real problems, we have been creating more – or simply pretending that they don’t exist (nowhere are the negative consequences of reactionary policies evidenced more obviously than on issues of the environment and global warming). In its final tribute to Bush, The Economist summarized nicely: “The three most notable characteristics of the Bush presidency [were]: partisanship, politicization and incompetence.” In asking America to adapt itself in order to solve these problems, Obama asked us to leave behind this style of politics: “We come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.” After these eight years, the presidential promise to reintroduce a basic level of honesty, openness and integrity into the federal government feels revolutionary.

When the whole thing was over, Kate and I gleefully waved goodbye to the Bush helicopter, which circled out over the Mall then disappeared behind the Capitol dome. The 43rd president looked unapologetically relieved to be leaving, and the crowd on the Mall – representing the country? – was palpably relieved to see him go.

Here at FCNL, we’ll be asking a lot of the new administration and the new Congress. We didn’t require Obama’s repeated exhortations to “continue the movement” to be cognizant of the fact that this election, and this inauguration, is the beginning, not the end. Cluster bombs aren’t yet banned; we aren’t yet assured that diplomacy will prevail in our relations with Iran; and the votes aren’t yet fully assembled for passage of the CTBT. But this speech was a start: a full recognition of the broad problems, and a cogent, honest statement of all of the right principles. It wasn’t Lincoln. But it’ll do.

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