Nearly 200 years after the British Army captured Washington, our nation’s capitol endured a different onslaught by an army twice as large as the U.S. and Russian armies combined.
The 1.8 million people who braved Washington’s winter chill for the inaugural came from all 50 states armed not with muskets but hope and a determination to be part of this historic occasion.
This hope permeated the city despite the fact that not since Roosevelt has the nation confronted problems of such a scale.
It was the hope of a new day. This was not solely because of President Obama’s status as the first African-American president.
While Obama’s election clearly represents the realization of Dr. King’s dream that Americans be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin and is a statement to the world of the promise of America, the stain of our nation’s past racial history was very much present in the nation’s collective bated breath as the president and first lady walked part of the parade route.
It was a new day because the nation had been liberated from the pall and embarrassment of the past eight years. Throughout the week I heard people expressing their excitement over the thought of not being ashamed of their president and his policies.
President Obama spoke to this sentiment in his inaugural address when he rejected “the [false] choice between our safety and our ideals.”
The message was clear that America was America again and “ready to lead once more.”
It was a new day because the torch had been passed to a new generation that stood free of past timidity over the use of government but mindful of the need to utilize this tool wisely.
A generation — Generation Jones — shaped not by the black and white culture wars that defined the baby boom, but by an appreciation of various shades of grey and the fact that no party or ideology was the sole keeper of truth.
As President Obama stressed, “we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
It was a new day because, after months of being adrift as President Bush was visibly checked out as president, the nation drew strength from President Obama’s resolve that the challenges we face will be met.
A Republican friend teased me before I left for Washington by asking that I let him know if the new president walked on water (although this would not have been a difficult task given the freezing temperatures).
Despite what Republicans may believe, nobody (save for a yet to be chosen First Dog) seriously believes that President Obama is the Messiah or that he can solve all the problems that confront this nation with the snap of a finger.
What people do believe, and what made people who have never even traveled to Washington before to make the trip and stand for hours in the cold to watch the inauguration, is that President Obama is, in the words of Colin Powell, “a transformational figure.” He has connected with and energized voters in a way not seen since Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
This skill combined with the magnitude of the current crises gives him an opportunity to reshape the country as Roosevelt had nearly a century ago.
While President Obama is certain to disappoint many over the course of his administration, what we must remember is that on a chilly Tuesday the nation came together and beamed with hope and optimism for the future.
After 50 years of division over civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate, the Gingrich revolution and the “Clinton Wars” and all things Bush, it was clear that a new day had dawned and that the nation stood ready to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” That in itself is a significant achievement.
There are many challenges still to be met. We must remember that, as John Kennedy said during his inaugural address, “[a]ll this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in … the life of this administration. … But let us begin.”
As the crowd dispersed from the mall and the sun set on this historic day and people returned home to states across the nation, it was clear that the “work of remaking America” had begun.
Bennet Kelley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org