The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Simple Gifts

The Inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth President of the United States tested the precision machinery that marked his campaign organization. The day’s events ran later and later than scheduled, involuntarily assisted in its tardiness by ill health on the part of some of Washington D.C.’s more senior politicians, with Vice-President Cheney causing a delay in the morning and Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd doing so in the afternoon.

Cheney pulled a muscle in his back while packing up his belongings. While I will not describe his injury as just deserts, this symbol of recalcitrance, within an Administration that prided itself on its projection of strength and moral surety, leaving the White House bent and wheelchair-ridden was a highly ironic image.

Kennedy’s and Byrd’s infirmities were no less emblematic, however, coming as they did on a day so many Americans viewed as symbolizing a “changing of the guard.”

Obama’s Inaugural Address stressed his desire to enact change. Although always confident and sometimes optimistic, it was more serious and somber rather than soaring in tone. If the absence of juicy sound bites or memorable tag lines disappointed anyone, I was not among their number.

The following line is the one I was listening for and, when it came, I found it as beautiful as any poet laureate’s verse.

“. . . we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of Law and the rights of Man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediency’s sake.”

This was the change most important to me and foremost in my mind when I voted last November.

Prior to Obama’s speech, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts added to the day’s serendipity by having a little trouble getting correct the Presidential Oath of Office. (In fairness, Roberts was as new at this particular ceremony as Obama.)

The exact wording, as decreed by the U.S. Constitution, is supposed to run “. . . that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States . . .” Roberts, in addition to an apparent determination to interrupt Obama every time he attempted to repeat the Oath, changed around some of the words within the phrase to “ . . . that I will execute the Office of President to the United States faithfully . . . ”

Obama grinned at the mistake and paused in his recitation, in order to give Roberts a chance to correct his mistake. When the Chief Justice, following John Marshall’s tradition of the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of all things Constitutional, apparently decided his interpretation was sufficient if not superior to the Founder’s strict construction, Obama dutifully repeated the line with the word “faithfully” in the wrong place.

Perhaps the flub was Robert’s gift to nutjob attorneys. He has provided conspiracy theorists with a completely new avenue in which they may insist that Obama cannot legally serve as President because he did not say the Oath correctly.

In fact, the Constitution resolved any such doubts around this question with the Twentieth Amendment, whose Section 1 states, “The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January . . . and the terms of their successors shall then begin.”

Thus, Obama officially became President at noon on Tuesday, regardless of whether he had yet taken the oral oath, properly or improperly, or yet signed the written version of it.

Since the ceremony was running late, it turns out the Oath was not taken until several minutes afterward. At the stroke of noon, Obama and the rest of the crowd was enjoying a musical number entitled “Air and Simple Gifts,” arranged by John Williams of Star Wars fame, and played by a dream quartet consisting of Gabriela Montero, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Anthony McGill.

And so President Obama was not so much sworn into office by Chief Justice Roberts as he was sung into it by a Caracas-born Venezuelan American pianist, a Paris-born Chinese American cellist, a Palestine-born Israeli American violinist, and a U.S.-born African American clarinetist, all using their instruments as their voices and singing a traditional Nineteenth Century Shaker hymn.

That ought to contain enough soaring poetical allusions to satisfy anybody.

There will be those who worry that Obama’s call for a return to high ethical standards is dangerously na├»ve in context of the war against terrorism. Technology has conspired to create weapons of mass destruction that are easy for small groups or even individuals to carry and deploy. We are facing enemies who have proven ruthless in their dedication to their causes.

Yet if this particular task is truly beyond us as a nation without compromising the very values at home for which we claim to fight abroad, then perhaps we do not deserve to endure, much as Benjamin Franklin once warned our fledgling country about trading off liberty for temporary safety.

President Obama joined this admonishment in his Address, saying, “We remain a young nation but, in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

Given the Baby Boomer generation’s desire to spoil our inner children with ever more complex and expensive toys, Obama was not asking us to lower our expectations. Rather he was suggesting we learn to turn from indulgence and egocentrism to find fulfillment in simpler things, such as the gifts selflessly won and given us by American heroes, large and small, past and present.

“Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that . . . we carried forth this great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free;
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right.

– “Simple Gifts”

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