Watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama Tuesday in Scooter’s – packed with students, staff and faculty – I couldn’t help recalling my experience 48 years ago in Madison, Wis., when John F. Kennedy swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States, so help him God.
The moment was more poignant and powerful today, and the St. Thomas family seemed to grasp its historic nature – a half dozen times they broke into applause – as they listened to the new president call for an end “to petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
To me, the times seem more perilous than they did in 1961. The economy then was humming along, the country was at peace (although a Cold War continued) and I was a senior at the University of Wisconsin. Today, the economy is in the dumpster, the country is involved in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and I am officially classified as a senior citizen.
But I have that same hope (some might call it naivete) that our new leader might truly be inspired, that change is possible, that this country and its people are better than we have demonstrated in recent years.
As I watched Kennedy’s inauguration on a black-and-white television set in the student union – it was bitterly cold in Washington – I felt proud of my American heritage. The vibrant, young president was asking for sacrifice and service.
“Now the trumpet summons us again – not as a call to bear arms – though arms we need – not as a call to battle, though embattled we are – but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, as we struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself,” Kennedy said.
The weather was cold and the sky was blue in Washington on Tuesday, and Obama also was asking something of Americans, including the million onlookers on the mall who waved flags, carried banners and, yes, shed tears. Again, I felt that patriotic pride.
“Our time of standing pat,” Obama said, “of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.”
Mere political rhetoric? Maybe. Or maybe there is something more noble, more promising ahead. St. Thomas senior Meghan Davy seems to think so.
“I had an internship in Washington, D.C., last summer,” she said. “And the first time I stood on the steps of the Capitol and took it all in, I thought about what it’d be like if Barack Obama were standing there, as president of the United States.”
Now she knows. “I loved it when he talked of acting responsibly in the world, always in accordance with our values.”
Amere Watkins, an African-American and a cook at St. Thomas for eight years, watched the proceedings as he leaned against the entrance to Scooter’s.
“It is a beautiful thing,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d ever live to see this in my lifetime.”
He did – at 11:10 a.m. (CDT) January 20, 2009.