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.

10 Responses

  1. Bob Douglas, St. Paul

    I’m sorry to enter so late into this discussion. Let me begin by saying I regard myself as pro-Life. My credentials for those interested are that I have been arrested 4 times for pro-life activities and continue to contribute to pro-life organizations. Also, while very pleased we now have an African-American President, I did not vote for either party candidate.
    Obama’s Presidency following eight years of a “pro-life” President is a very welcome relief for those of us who refuse to limit “pro-life” definitions to abortion. During the past eight years, we initiated two wars that so far have claimed 4,237 U.S. soldiers in Iraq and 574 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. These totals do not include 992 American contractors or 160 journalists of several nationalities. But of course, life remains precious outside of the U.S. as well. And in that regard, we hear precious little in U.S. media about the estimated more than 700,000 deaths of civilians and “enemy” combatants in these two wars.
    There is also no way of determining the number of domestic fatalities due to cuts in welfare and social programs for the poor, for children, for the unemployed, and for our military veterans, but their figures rose as well during Bush’s “pro-life” administration.
    While it is true that on Jan.23, President Obama rescinded the Mexico City Policy that withheld family planning assistance from foreign, non-governmental organizations that used any kind of funds to engage in providing advice, counseling, referrals or information regarding abortion, it did not repeal the 1973 Helms Amendment, which prohibits providing USAID funds to pay for abortions as a method of family planning or to coerce any person to have an abortion. According to its own press releases, USAID continues to place “high priority on preventing abortions through the use of family planning, saving the lives of women who suffer complications arising from unsafe abortion, and linking those women to voluntary family planning and other reproductive health services that will help prevent subsequent abortions.”
    President Obama has taken several other executive actions since inauguration besides the repeal of President Reagan’s Mexico City Policy including:
    Jan 22: signing of an executive order regarding lawful interrogations, i.e., prohibiting the use of torture in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and other signed international treaties
    Jan 22: signing of an executive order to close as soon as possible the detention facilities at Guantánamo, consistent with national security, foreign policy interests, and the interests of justice
    Jan 29: signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act making it possible for employees to challenge unlawful pay discrimination based upon gender, race, age and disability past the former 180-day limit from the first day of employment
    Feb 4: signed a bill reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, expanding the health coverage program to include about 4 million more children, including coverage of legal immigrants for the first time
    We may have differing opinions on this, but mine is that all these decisions were “pro-life.”
    History has proven that it was premature two weeks after President Bush’s inauguration to label his presidency as “pro-life.” It may be a bit premature at this time to decide that President Obama’s tenure will not be “pro-life.” Certainly it would be more beneficial now to pray for the new President and let history do the labeling.

  2. Jane Cain

    I, too, agree with James and Nick. Mr. Nimmer, I would hope that you would be able to truly be non-racist and weigh Obama on his merits, not on the color of his skin. What has he done so far that would warrant you being so proud of him? He has already very much shown how against women and babies and most likely even the elderly. He is not someone who I can be proud of unless I see a change of heart.

  3. Nick, St. Paul

    Mr. Nimmer,
    I thought you would have learned something from Michelle Obama’s outrageous comment on how “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I really proud of my country.” I for one have always been proud of my country, and will be until the day I die. Not once, as in Michelle Obama’s case, and twice as in yours.
    I am proud of the thousands of enslaved who persevered in hope, and the countless others who fought to free them.
    I am proud of the brave men and women who said no more to segregation, and men like Dr. King who believed, “In justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
    Finally, I am proud of those defending life from conception to natural death. Their efforts to spread a message of love, compassion, and understanding to young women has begun to worry pro-abortionists. So much so that they have convinced our president to sign the Freedom of Choice Act as his first piece of legislation.
    The abolition of slavery and the passing of the Civil Rights Act were fundamental to making the election of an African-American possible. However, we haven’t removed the stain of abortion, and it may be a while before we do.
    There is hope (true hope) as I pray for President Obama’s conversion of heart. Until then, I hope you, Mr. Nimmer, are able to read up on you history, and discover all there is to be proud of in America.

  4. James Heaney, St. Paul

    Yes, because Lincoln did so much to uphold the law (decided by Dred Scott v. Sandford) with the Emancipation Proclamation. Because Kennedy did so much to uphold the federalist law of our Constitution with the Civil Rights Act.
    Additionally, how does it “subvert” Roe to restrict federal funding for abortion? Such an order is entirely in line with the provisions of the decision. Have you ever actually read Roe?
    Your argument, Pat, is either deeply ignorant or profoundly disingenous. I hope, in all honesty, that it is the former.
    As for you, Mr. Nimmer, I cannot imagine how one can feel a resounding sense of patriotism on the day when we have elected a man who has already begun to dismantle the fragile network of human rights for the unborn that we have established at great cost during the last eight years. This man, like pro-slavery and pro-abortion presidents before him, is an enemy of freedom.

  5. Pat

    My feelings have nothing to do with that, so it’s not, as Robb comments, a “liberal thing.” Until the Supreme Court reverses its decision, the president must uphold the law.

  6. Robb, Woodbury

    Did you feel the same way when Justice Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, or is this strictly a liberal thing?

  7. Pat

    Trouble is, Tim, the U.S. Supreme Court decided for abortion rights in Rowe vs. Wade. President Obama’s job is to uphold the law. He took an oath to do that. That’s why there are checks and balances in our Constitution. An executive order shouldn’t flaunt the Supreme Court’s decision.

  8. Carol, St. Cloud

    I agree with Tim. If we can’t even protect the most vulnerable, where are we as a nation? President Kennedy didn’t have to deal with this issue in 1961.

  9. Tim, St. Paul

    Sadly, his actions just a few days after the Inauguration of expanding abortion coverage shows that President Obama is, despite whatever he may claim to be, an enemy of the unborn and those who cannot protect themselves. Just as an entire class of Americans used to be denied civil rights due to the color of their skin, an entire class of Americans continues to be denied the very right to life due to their stage of development.

  10. Tom King, West St. Paul

    I, too, heard JFK’s inaugural on that cold day (here in Minnesota it was even colder!) in January 1961. I was just as inspired as you were back then, and nearly so with young President Obama last week.
    A couple of personal thoughts: I long for the day when the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with a vote, job or friendship. I doubt I’ll live to see that, but I pray it will happen nonetheless.
    Second, great words are inspiring and these two young presidents lit the fire of passion for change in the hearts of many. But passion doesn’t persist. Perseverance does. Kennedy had his problems and Obama will have his.
    I wish this young president well. He already has a ticket on my prayer wheel.