Some presidential inaugural comparisons…

January 20, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

The first inaugural ceremony I ever watched was Eisenhower’s second in 1957. I was eight years old and in third grade and my mom let me stay home from school and watch it on TV. It was her idea, not mine (I did not object). I’m not sure why she wanted me to watch, but maybe it was because the local high school band was in the inaugural parade, and we did see them on TV (my sister was in high school at the time, but I don’t recall that she stayed home).

While I did see the Tulare, Ca. Union High School Redskin Marching Band, I was just as interested in seeing the street cars in Washington DC, shown on the television. They reminded me of the ones in my hometown of San Francisco. I understand DC abandoned them by 1963. They were replaced with buses. We were already going off track way back then.

I haven’t really keyed in on inaugurals since, but I don’t recall there being so much excitement for one in my lifetime as there is for the one for Barack Obama. Of course it is an historical occasion, him being the first black American president – and no doubt you’ve heard that fact mentioned several times today and yesterday and will tomorrow.

I also watched John F. Kennedy’s inaugural in 1961. The only things I really remember about that one was the fact that he wore a top hat and I thought it looked funny on him. And despite the fact that he did wear that hat for the ceremony, he may have been the first president to go around hatless on most other occasions (that marked a generational change). He had that unique Kennedy brush (I just made up that description as far as I know) hairdo and was forever moving the hair out of his eyes with one hand. It was a cold day for his inaugural I recall too. You could see the breath come out of his mouth.

And I remember the line in his inaugural speech: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” And it seems as if that might be appropriate now. And I recall that funny, but pleasing, and stylish the way he did it, Kennedy/Massachusetts accent. In later speeches he would talk about Cuba, but it came out like “Cuber”. And if you impersonate him (which I think I have down pat) you have to use the phrase: “well, just let me say this about tha(e)t”. I don’t know if he ever actually used that phrase, but I think he did.

I do know that folks were excited about Kennedy because of his youth and the promise that a new generation was taking over and the nation would be revitalized. I was too young to realize what the public mood was, but I guess the go-go of the post war boom and the Fabulous Fifties had warn down somewhat and it seemed like the aged set of which Eisenhower was part needed to be replaced with new and younger blood.

It was a tight race between Kennedy and Richard Nixon, so not everyone was so enthused, I’m sure. But I do recall that the new occupants of the White House, the glamorous young man and his glamorous and refined and charming wife, and the two adorable kids, brought the element of celebrity (and family too) and even idol worship to the presidential home and office. In fact, as the time wore on, some worried that we had created a new royalty in the Kennedys and the whole affair was named Camelot, after a popular play at the time about the mythical King Arthur.

And while in conservative right wing and still predominantly white country where I live the tone seems somewhat subdued (and many folks don’t get too excited around here about any politics), the current television coverage indicates this Obama thing is Camelot and then some.

With the nation truly facing what may be its biggest economic crisis ever, one that I think could dwarf even the Great Depression, and the fact it is waging wars in the Middle East and faces constant terrorist threats (even if Bush, playing on the real 9/11, exaggerated some, common sense tells us they are there), there are great expectations for Mr. Obama, President Obama by the time most read this.

While the adulation being poured on our new President Obama may already be wearing thin with some or certainly soon will be, if that is what it takes to inspire a nation to rise from the ruins of irresponsibility or terribly bad luck or whatever, I say so be it.

P.s. I think much of the news coverage is being indulgent with the emphasis on what this all means to Black America and that this is somehow finally a movement toward addressing the wrongs of slavery. And convenient it is that the inauguration of the first black president comes the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But after today (Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2008, Inauguration Day) we need to move on and address how all of us will survive. We are greatly weakened by a failing economic system. We are facing somewhat of a new economic order on the world scale. And we have enemies who would like to exploit this situation. The last president inaccurately described himself as a “uniter not a divider”. Our new one promises to take over that mantra and make good on it – so far so good.