We Have Been Turned Around

The president of the United States is black. Literally, not figuratively, not in some socio-psycho-political sense. But dark skin, black wife, black children. His name is Barack Hussein Obama, and despite the fact that it was a worldwide spectacle witnessed by billions or that the oath of office was administered twice, there is still a mind-boggling fancifulness to the whole episode; it's incredible in the original sense of the word.

And I say all this as someone who saw the whole thing with my own eyes. From my seat in the press section, I could see John Roberts' face -- plain as day -- as he flubbed the Big Moment. It was then that I realized how much this moment mattered to me.

That small departure from the expected text -- I didn't even know that I knew the presidential oath that well -- sent a sudden shock of panic through me. And when Obama began his speech by noting: "Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace," my reaction was: Not the same words, not in the same order. What if this somehow invalidates the whole deal? While I thought I was indulging my over-imaginative self, Obama apparently had the same thought and took a do-over of the oath Wednesday night.

I didn't join the conspiracy theorists, who quickly began to speculate about whether Roberts' stumble was intentional. A question from a more cynical political age, clearly. I'm sure Roberts, something of a perfectionist by reputation, was embarrassed, particularly now that we know that it pissed off the president. But I raged a little at the idea that the chief justice had a small and simple job and he blew it. I, without knowing it, had wanted this to be perfect. I think this might be especially true for black people, but not just black people. I was surprised by my own expectations.

After they stumbled through the bungled oath and Roberts said, "Congratulations Mr. President," a chill went through me that had nothing to do with the freezing temperatures. Part of it for me, frankly, is the pageantry and the remarkably powerful idea that power can be peacefully transferred. But there is no denying the power of the black thing.

From where I sat, I could see, through one of the mini Palladian windows that circled the podium, the presidential seal. While Obama spoke, I could see, through another of the arched windows, his left hand -- wedding ring flashing in the sunlight -- slicing through the air, as he praised the "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things." The juxtaposition of that black hand and the presidential seal is the image that has stayed with me.

Like everyone else listening to the speech for the tagline that would define the Obama presidency and the generation that made it possible, I was a little disappointed, but again I was amazed by Obama's ability to defy the obvious expectations and choose his own way. How he managed to resist the temptation to reach for that signature line is a remarkable testament to his discipline.

This is particularly true after having watched him in the days leading up to Tuesday, when I was taken with the new president's embrace of the American myth. Joan Didion once said that "we tell ourselves stories in order to live"; I think we are the stories we tell ourselves, and part of Obama's charm is that he has become expert at recounting those stories for us. This was one of George W. Bush's biggest deficiencies. 

On Saturday in Philadelphia, Obama talked about the farmers, the lawyers, the merchants, the soldiers, the fishermen, the laborers, and the craftsmen who built the country and helped it survive. On Tuesday, the president who rode to the White House on the opposition to a war invoked battles fought at "Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh."

And then he urged: "Let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled."

The long journey to this moment was a consistent thematic thread. I watched Aretha come to the podium and take a cordless microphone off a stand sitting low to her left. There was no pretense of subtlety when she sang across the National Mall, across 70 years to the day in 1939 when Marian Anderson sang the same song -- "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" -- at the Lincoln Memorial after having been barred from performing at Constitution Hall because she was black. I turned around and looked at the waves of humanity shimmering in the distance.

Past the Washington Monument, I could see the outlines of the Lincoln Memorial which brought to mind another Aretha song: "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Roun." The Obama inaugural seemed a fitting bookend to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. But on that day 45 years ago, the shimmering waves of humanity faced the opposite direction.

We have been turned around. The president of the United States is black.