Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The History Man

For today's Herald.

FOR a world facing the most fearful economic storm in a lifetime, for a country weary of war, for a generation at an environmental crossroads, it was a day freighted not just with expectation but with a genuine sense of history in the making.

When President Barack Hussain Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States in Washington shortly after mid-day yesterday he took command of a nation longing for change and a planet yearning for new stewardship.

By simply being who he is, by shattering the barrier of race and prejudice as the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama has become an American icon. He took his most solemn oath of office on the steps of the Capitol, the alter of American democracy built by slaves, clenching the same Bible used at the 1861 inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the president who ended slavery.

In Washington the icy streets filled up before dawn with revellers from Tampa, Florida, from San Rafael, California, from sea to shining sea. They came to stamp their feet against the cold and shed tears of joy at the biggest inauguration ever. From the moment the subway started running at 4am the train carriages were standing room only. The inauguration drew up to two million people. Security was unprecedented as the capital braced for the logistical headaches of closing streets and bridges for the day and night party that was to follow.

Hundreds of thousands of people, swaddled against the cold, packed Washington’s Mall, stretching two miles from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. It made for an awesome televisual image, a sea of people waving American flags on the cold, grassy mall for hours before Mr Obama was due to be sworn in. No camera had the focal length to take in the full panorama of the crowd that had come to be part of history.

Half a world away, in dusty schoolyards in Kenya, they roasted goat and danced barefoot for their own son. From Indonesia to Hawaii they celebrated their part in the Obama story. At the United Nations complex, overlooking the freezing Danube River in Vienna, someone wrote “Yes, we can” in giant letters in the snow.

And in Moneygall, a small village on the Offaly-Tiperrary border, the buildings were adorned in red, white and blue bunting because, as the Corrigans assured us in song: “O’Leary, O’Reilly, O’Hare and O’Hara, there’s no one as Irish as Barack O’bama”.

With a DNA pattern that is a scriptwriter’s dream the 47 year old son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas was sworn in with full ceremony a few minutes late and serenaded by Aretha Franklin and a John Williams score. As he did so, to deafening applause, he became a living symbol of emancipation for African Americans, whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic in chains and who for generations were bound in slavery then segregation.

Among the honoured guests were veterans from the civil rights campaign including former students who enrolled in Little Rock high school in 1957 to confront segregation. None of them would pretend one man can unravel the twisted legacy of America but all of them knew, as the voice of Luther King’s dream echoed off the walls of the Capitol, that this was their day in history.

As the page turned the outgoing President George W Bush left a note for Mr Obama in the top drawer of his desk in the Oval Office, as is traditional. The theme of the message - which Mr Bush wrote on Monday - is the same as what he has said since election night: that Obama is about to begin a “fabulous new chapter” in the United States, and that he wished him well.

The unfinished business of the Bush administration thrusts an enormous burden onto the new President who comes into office with high expectations that he is on the track to succeed, that he is a President who can make history. After a nervous, slightly fluffed, swearing in the new president kissed his wife Michelle and his children and turned to the podium.

Previous Obama speeches have been exercise in dazzling, of-the-momemnt oratory that when panned afterwards for gold turn up few memorable nuggets. This one had a rock-hard message for America to pick itself up and head for renewal. His is a presidency born in a storm and in “a winter of hardship” he called on Americans to rise to the challenge. To the rest of the world he offered the hope of new leadership and to Amercian enemies, “on the wrong side of history”, he offered to extend a hand “if you are willing to unclench your fist,”

A gifted speaker, Obama had to both raise and contain the hopes of millions as he outlined a new course for the United States. He managed to do it with a dignity, a touching humility - these priceless intangibles of character - and with a confidence that drew on the spirit of America’s founding fathers.

Obama’s presidency puts Democrats firmly in charge of Washington. They will control both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994. Though the new leader faces monumental challenges he has been granted a honeymoon, and perhaps even his victory, by the bitter legacy of policies left by George W Bush, who departed from the capital last night as one of the nation’s most unpopular and divisive presidents.

The change that America ached for has finally come but in the old words, having campaigned in poetry President Obama has to govern in prose. The challenge of being shepherd to the free world starts this morning but with most of the world, for once, giving its blessing to America.

No other age, no other nation and no other system could throw up someone as uniquely equipped to take America forward as Barack Hussain Obama. No one else could be so global in their inheritance and their vision and yet so able to inspire this patriotic, still-young nation on the next stage of its journey.

“Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.” Here he comes, the History Man.

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