Tuesday, January 20, 2009


So I went down to the National Mall for the inaugural, and I'm glad I did. Partially I went as a way of making up for the fact that I didn't do any celebrating on election night itself -- I live within walking distance of U street in Washington, DC, and I could hear some of the cheering, but I didn't go out.
So, the inaugural presented me with another chance to be part of this history, however slightly, and share the moment with a bunch of other people.
Getting down there was straightforward, the various choke points didn't present any serious obstacles, and I found a place just west of 7th Street, within easy sight of one of the jumbotrons, and from where I could see the Capitol itself, as well. I could even make out movement from time to time, using my binoculars.
It was awesome. The crowd was warm and friendly, strangers chatted and joked amicably, and we all cheered mightily when Mr. Obama made any kind of appearance on the TV. I liked the speech, and in particular enjoyed his promise to put science back into the policy-making apparatus. It's a pleasant change indeed to have a President who thinks, who understands the uses of rationality, and who can deliver his speechwriter's words with grace and fluidity.
The experience reminded me very much of the optimism of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and we knew that the world had been transformed for the better. Like then, the Obama administration will surely have its problems and stumbles, and make mistakes, and irritate vocal core constituencies of the Democratic party, but still, it's hard not to think that here, again, has been a decisive transformation for the better.
It's also a fine lesson in the ability of the United States to reinvent itself. Really, there aren't a lot of countries where a member of a marginal minority could rise to such high office. When will Germany have its first black leader? Or for that matter, its first leader of Turkish ancestry? What about France? Even the UK, more of a melting pot than most European countries, and quicker to abolish slavery than the US, has a ways to go on that score.
Thinking of historical rather than geographic parallels, Obama reminds me of Canada's Pierre Trudeau -- he, too, was a member of a historically-marginal national minority, young, intelligent, and hopeful. And more than that, he didn't come from the Quebec political scene, just as Obama, though obviously sympathetic to it, does not himself come from the Civil Rights leadership.
Of course, Trudeau had his demons, too. But for now, I'm happy to just savor this unfamiliar sensation of optimism.