Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Praise song for the day

"In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

"On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp --- praise song for walking forward in that light."

Those words from Elizabeth Alexander's magnificent inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day" fairly well summed up for me Tuesday's inaugural. I can't remember the last occasion in our collective recent history so filled with hope and eloquence. Now the work begins and we'll see, as we do every four years, if hopes and dreams expressed on the Capitol steps can become real.

I listened to the inaugural events on National Public Radio driving north across Iowa, and there are advantages to that because the focus shifts from television's array of sights and sounds and commentary to the words --- what's being said and sung.

Frankly, if I'd been sitting at home in front of the television I'd probably have gone out to fill my coffee cup during Alexander's poem rather than sitting behind the wheel speeding through an Iowa winter transfixed by her words. I wouldn't have listened as carefully to Aretha Franklin's magnificent performance of "America" or really thought about the words arranged into prayers by the Rev. Rick Warren and the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery.

Much of President Obama's inaugural speech coincided with those few miles of my narrow gravel shortcut west of Marshalltown where the snowbanks were taller that the truck, the surface hard-packed snow with ice beneath and heavy equipment was being used at intersections to push the mountains back in anticipation of the next storm. Is that an analogy for the situation we're now in? It almost seemed that way.

I liked the speech --- sober and reflective. There was mild complaining among some NPR commentators who felt the speech didn't soar --- and anyone who has listened to Obama speak knows he is a master of the language and can use effectively any rhetorical device he chooses to. So the sober nature was intentional. I especially liked this:

"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

Funny to me at least was the whispered commentary on the Rev. Rick Warren's invocation: "He said Jesus." Warren did a fine job, I thought, but the apparent surprise is bemusing, a sign of a mild cultural divide, as was the pre-inaugural speculation about whether he would or wouldn't. It's useful to know that if you invite a Southern Baptist preacher to preach you'll sit longer than 20 minutes and there will be an altar call. Invite a Southern Baptist preacher to pray and it is inconceivable that Jesus will not be part of the equation.

But I thought the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery's benediction more eloquent and moving. Nothing could have been more fitting than closing prayer delivered by that 87-year-old civil rights pioneer and United Methodist preacher.

"With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen."

Seeing photographs later of George W. and Laura Bush board a helecopter after the inauguration on the first leg of their journey home to Texas was surprisingly bitter-sweet. I'm afraid history will not be kind to the Bush presidency and that it may be consigned to footnotes --- the unique father-son succession of George H.W. and George W. Bush, the responsibility that falls on George W. Bush's shoulders as commander in chief for the war in Iraq.

I hope the bright footnote of his strong and reassuring leadership immediately after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon will end up in the books, too; as well as acknowledgement that because of the war on terrorism we really will never know what he might otherwise have done had he presided over eight years of peace. I probably wouldn't have liked it, but there is the benefit of that doubt.

Jimmy Carter, to whose presidency the historians have not been especially kind, is one example to how an ex-president with an ambiguous record can soar unambiguously. Bush might choose that path, or if as sometimes is suggested he is not an introspective man, he may just get on with life. But it would be very bad manners indeed not to wish him well.

Tuesday was the easy part, the inspiring part. Now it's time to get to work and I hope and pray that the work goes well.

1 comment:

Ed Abbey said...

I thought Obama address was quite good and one of the best inaugural addresses I can remember.

I didn't shed any tears when the Bush's flew off to Texas but I did listen to some of George's speech when he got there and for the first time in awhile, he seemed truly relaxed and kind a decent sort of guy.