Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Beginnings and Ends

Today, Barack Obama will take the oath of office to become the 44th President of the United States of America. With that beginning we see the end of the Bush (mis)Administration, and not a day too soon. Although America was founded on the rejection of royalty, Presidential Inaugurations have featured regal pomp and circumstance since April 30, 1789 and the first inauguration of the first President— George Washington (above, Currier and Ives’ 19th century conception of that first inauguration). Washington famously rejected all the trappings of kingship under a different name, but the inauguration still became an august moment of the peaceful transfer of power in America. The power of Washington’s personal gravitas bonded all opposing forces together at that moment, providing a rallying point around which the newly born nation could unite. Ever since that first moment of presidential power, inaugurations have provided images that stand as touchstones of American history.

With the sad exception of William Henry Harrison’s 1841 inauguration, at which he contracted a fatal case of pneumonia while delivering his address (the longest still in presidential history) in a driving sleet storm, inaugurations continued to be mostly peaceful transfers of authority. The American Civil War, unfortunately, ended all ideas of peace. Photographer Alexander Gardner took the photo above of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1865. Lincoln stands in the middle of the crowd, a tiny, hatless figure reading from a piece of paper. Somewhere in the sea of heads above Lincoln John Wilkes Booth looks down upon his future victim. Booth and his co-conspirators came to the inauguration looking for an opportunity to strike but failed. Gardner took what many people believe to be the last photograph of Lincoln on April 10, 1865. Four days later, Booth and his henchmen succeeded in assassinating Lincoln. When the captured co-conspirators (Booth was killed before he could be captured) were hanged in July 1865, Gardner was the only photographer allowed to take pictures of the execution, which were then used to draw etchings to be used in newspapers.

The aura of hope and good feelings that surrounds Obama brings to mind for many the days of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy added a touch of class to his 1961 inauguration by asking the great poet Robert Frost to recite a poem (shown above). The 86-year-old poet struggled with the wind, brutal cold, and relentless sun in his eyes so much that he could not read the new poem had written for the occasion, titled “Dedication.” After trying his best to read the new poem, Frost recited from memory an older poem, “The Gift Outright,” saving the day and bestowing a different kind of gift upon the new president and the country:

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia.
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak.
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Other presidents have asked other poets to bless their beginning, but none has ever matched JFK and Frost’s moment of grace.

Of all the sad photos of that tragic day in Dallas when JFK was assassinated, one of the saddest to me remains that in which Lyndon B. Johnson takes the Oath of Office on Air Force One as it sat in Love Field. Jackie Kennedy stands beside LBJ still wearing blood-splattered clothes. Her eyes seem almost empty, perhaps imagining the dead body of her husband lying in a coffin elsewhere in that same plane as it prepared to return to Washington, DC. LBJ’s “inauguration” saddens me because the assassin’s bullet violently took away that moment of celebration of the democratic process. Whomever killed Kennedy also killed the American spirit as embodied in the image of an individual standing before the people and promising to guide us as a nation through good and bad.

Although it seems a lifetime ago, it was eight years ago exactly that George W. Bush’s first inauguration took place. After the bitter, partisan election battle, this inauguration, too, seemed like a murdering of the American spirit rather than a celebration of our unity as a people. Bush’s car was egged by protestors so badly on the way to the Capitol Building that the slow procession became a quick drive-by to the final destination. Protestors in Washington, DC’s Freedom Plaza (above) exercised their freedom of speech to protest what they saw as a miscarriage of justice despite the best efforts of the authorities to push them further away from the proceedings. Today, as Obama takes that oath (followed by inaugural balls that aim at including not only the powerful but also the common people in DC and, thanks to technology, all across the country and the world), I want to wipe away these images of protest from my memory, look at inaugurations with fresh eyes, and celebrate America once more.

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