Fighting Words

A Wonderful Day for Washington, D.C.

Now it’s time to hold President Obama accountable for his promises.

Barack and Michelle Obama

By all means the speech, but first, if you will allow me, a few words also on the day itself. Washington, D.C., is in many ways a provincial town, still highly segregated and occasionally mutually suspicious. It has been much too easy to count the moments of civic esprit down the years. I remember the huge eruption of spontaneous enthusiasm that filled the rather dreary downtown streets about a quarter of a century ago when the Redskins won some pennant or other. The papers wrote then that at last the federal city was acquiring a character of its own, and I recall thinking that such boosterism was itself a bit pathetic and depressing and that it wouldn’t be very long before the word Redskin became an occasion for local acrimony. (It wasn’t very long, either.)

The morning of Tuesday, Jan. 20, found me on a jampacked Metro train, and then platform, so crowded that I could scarcely inflate my lungs. And yet I heard myself saying, as everyone inched forward, “not a punch thrown, not a purse snatched, not a pocket picked.” And by the end of the day, so it had proved. Many, many hands had been extended, to visitors and fellow citizens, but not one raised in a hostile way. (Of course, it did cross my cynical mind that it would have been quite hard to run away from a crime scene in such densely packed conditions, but I then banished the thought.)

The fact that every normal action or movement took about 10 times as long as usual and the stop-time, slowdown effect of this eerie, shared imposition may have added to the sense of the aching passage of the moments as being “historic.” Certainly this was not the quotidian stupidity of a “security” line at an airport, where time is merely being wasted (though of course the police bureaucracy did manage to spoil the day for many citizens by such tactics, with zero gain in public safety). It was, rather, the impression of having perforce to occupy the same democratic space as everybody else, not just in the District but in the United States.

I am a proud Sidwell Friends parent (all the young students there have been predictably “good” about not making any kind of fuss about the new arrivals, or indeed about the Biden grandchildren), and though of course the huge, warm crowd at ground zero on the Mall isn’t precisely the same context, it does still call upon the same ethos. It may be a very big deal to have a black first family, but the less of a big deal that you make of it, the better you come to appreciate the fact of how big a deal it is. The first thing to say about the Obama inaugural, then, is that it followed this etiquette of understatement. Reserved for the very end of his remarks, and as a prelude to a ringing sentence from George Washington, the new president mentioned in passing that “less than 60 years ago” his own father “might not have been served at a local restaurant.” Most people present didn’t have a memory that extended that far back, and nobody alleges that Mr. Obama senior ever actually was insulted in this way in the nation’s capital. How admirable, then, to remind us in this feline fashion of what we already “know,” without making it a matter of self-pity. (And it’ll be a cold day in hell, as someone has already pointed out, before the Kenyan electorate chooses a member of the Luo tribe as its elected president.)

Remember that only a few months ago we were being told that the “Bradley effect” would negate any attempt to elect Obama. (Before we agree to forget all about that, let’s recall that nasty whispers of this sort were actually converted into political currency by the Hillary Clinton campaign.) Then it was argued that, should the Bradley effect prove too weak—and was there ever a candidate with an effect as weak as Mayor Tom Bradley?—the voting machines in Ohio would be rigged again. This proving insufficient as a means of stopping the Obama candidacy, it was flatly stated by many informal experts that the man would simply be shot before he could move his narrow, dusky behind into the house of President Lincoln *. And that’s why I think the most heart-stopping sight of the day was the first couple, striding bravely and beautifully and confidently along Pennsylvania Avenue for all the world as if it were their wedding day. The boring bubble of “security” will certainly re-form and encrust itself around the peoples’ choice, but still … Surely the whole citizenry deserves some credit for this?

Given the fact that it was revised and completed almost a week before it was delivered, Obama’s decision to make a very minimal speech must have been deliberate. He promised almost nothing, raised few expectations, kept the tedious boilerplate (“We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord”) to a decent minimum. On three points, though, he hit notes that deserve amplification. “We will restore science to its rightful place,” is intended, I have some reason to believe, to reinforce or underline the president’s emphasis on religious pluralism and on the inclusion (with a few days to go before the Darwin-Lincoln bicentennial) of the fast-growing number of “nonbelievers.” That this has already drawn fire from the vastly overrated black churches is a good sign in itself.

Then one can hardly overpraise the repudiation, annexed from Franklin even if he may not actually have said it, of “the false choice between our safety and our ideals.” This acted as a curtain-raiser for the important restatement of the ideals themselves:

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

The president has a better grip on the English language than any of his living-memory predecessors, and it seems certain that he wrote at least 80 percent of this address himself. It’s nice to be able to hold people to claims that they have written rather than read, and I look forward to doing so.

Correction, Jan. 27, 2009: Because of an editing error, this article originally referred to Obama’s moving into the Lincoln Bedroom, when the intended reference was to the White House generally. (Return to the corrected sentence.)