There is only one other similar train ride in my memory where ordinary people stood ten deep to catch a glimpse of their hero, and that was the funeral train of Robert F. Kennedy from New York to Washington, D.C. in August of 1968. It was the most poignant and tragic public event I had ever witnessed, and since I was young, and felt in the thick of current events, I was crushed by the promise destroyed and the hope denied. I'll admit that several years passed before I was able to watch news footage of that sad, solemn train and all those broken-hearted people standing by the tracks without weeping. But Barack Obama seems indeed inspired in his use of symbolism. Just as Grant Park in Chicago, a place infamously barred to protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, was used for Obama's election night victory celebration, so this jubilant train trip, lined with exuberant well-wishers, only with tears of joy in their eyes this time, stands in juxtaposition to that painful memory of so many years past. It's almost as if something that was taken from me a long time ago has, in part, been given back.
I suppose I understand a bit better how Evangelicals must have felt when George W. Bush was elected, only without the accompanying dementia. I have no illusions that Barack Obama is the "messiah," I just believe he is the right man for this extremely difficult job, and I feel grateful for his election and confident in his abilities. Aside from electing a black man, I still find it astounding that the country elected an intellectual. It wasn't so long ago that "intellectual" was a dirty word, as in "pointy-headed," and other scornful descriptions used by the Tom DeLays and Karl Roves of this world. Clinton had an enormous intellect, but he was too much of a razorback, redneck-yahoo to be an intellectual. Kennedy was a brilliant rogue. The last Democratic intellectual to run for President was Adlai Stevenson, and the scorn from his political opponents over his braininess was sufficient for every candidate since to dumb down the message. Not this time. And people seem to be responding well to being talked to like adults.
Despite these desperate times, the excitement over the Obama inauguration is palpable and Rooseveltian in its scope. Yesterday's speech in Philadelphia contained these majestic words:
"And yet while our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not. What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed. What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice and bigotry — an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."
Language like this, with an historical echo of Lincoln, if taken seriously, could well save not just this nation, but save us as a civil society.
I don't usually like to kick a man when he's down, but in the case of George Bush, I'll make an exception. There's a final irony to this entire scenario and it's that the Bush presidency really began with a catastrophe in lower Manhattan, and it ends with one as well, only with an entirely different result. Bush's tough-guy image was built standing on the rubble of the Twin Towers, but his "farewell" speech to the nation, with its' supporting cast of human props, resembled the final episode of "Seinfeld." There was the old fireman that Bush draped his arm around on top of the pile, there was the Katrina survivor who's arm someone must have been twisted to be there. The only old face missing was Lyndie England giving a "thumbs-up.". Only hours before, some sort of miracle had occurred in the Hudson River and a true American hero emerged in pilot "Sully" Sullenberger, but Bush was too self-absorbed and oblivious to even acknowledge the event and, of course, it's far too late for him to exploit it now. Obama already called. It reminds me of the Iranian militants waiting for Jimmy Carter to leave office before releasing the hostages. Whatever the significance, I'd think it serendipitous to begin a new administration after a miracle than after a disaster any day. Perhaps an era of new heroes has begun.