Obama's day recaptures promise of JFK inauguration
Monday, January 19, 2009
Today's inauguration brings to mind, for me at least, another inaugural day, one that took place 48 years ago on January 20, 1961.
As a 12-year-old Boy Scout, I was an usher at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. My station was a reviewing stand on the side south of Pennsylvania Avenue, closer to the White House than the Capitol.
It had snowed heavily the night of January 19. There was as much as a foot of fresh snow. We were to be there early, by 7 am, which must have taken some doing on the part of our parents. As morning dawned, the snow had stopped and the sun came out brightly, but it was bitterly cold. We spent the early hours jumping up and down trying to keep our feet from going numb. Sometime after 9, the stands began to fill.
Kennedy came down the parade route in an open car. He did not wear a hat, which given both the cold and conventions of male attire at the time, stirred considerable comment. Mrs. Kennedy wore a hat and white gloves, but I doubt that either kept her very warm. As I think back to that inauguration and compare it to this one, Kennedy's inauguration seemed to come at a time of such great promise.
JFK's relative youthfulness and electric smile, his inspiring message about the New Frontier and fresh ideas like the Peace Corps all contributed to the sense of promise. Soon, of course, that shining light of promise faded nearly to nothing as we descended into a decade of assassinations and the Vietnam War.
While Barack Obama seems at least to many of us a very promising figure, the times could hardly be less promising. When I visited with historian Mark Toulouse this week, he said that never in American history had an incoming president faced a tougher array of challenges.
I tested his sweeping statement. "Even Frank Delano Roosevelt?" I asked. "Even Roosevelt," he answered. "The 21st-century world of the global economy is so much more complex." Toulouse went on to enumerate the litany of challenges, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new war in Israel, Iran, and most of all the meltdown in the U. S. economy and massive national debt.
Who could imagine when Kennedy was inaugurated early in 1961 that such promising times would turn, and so soon, into a long season of tragedy? Perhaps there will be a similar, if opposite, reversal, with these most unpromising times somehow giving way to a better day than we are able at this point to quite imagine?
The reality and sense of crisis that shadows Obama's inauguration and first days in office does, no doubt about it, bring enormous challenges. But crisis, at least sometimes, can benefit a leader. Obama will gain credit simply for remaining calm and resolute, and in doing so, reassuring an anxious nation. There will be more inclination to give the new president a chance and offer support. There will be heightened pressure on other political leaders and factions to unite in the face of huge challenges.
As the stands emptied and the sunlight faded during the late afternoon of inaugural day 1961, my buddies and I looked for some way to amuse ourselves. At this point, the parade was down to the governors. State executives, one after another, went by in open convertibles, big signs on the sides of their cars with their names and the name of their state.
We conspired to get their attention and yank their gubernatorial chains by shouting out a governor's first name on a count of three. "All together now, 'Hey, Jerry,' " we shouted, or Jim or Ted. Governor after governor fell for it, jerking around at the sound of his name, hoping to see a friend or gaggle of constituents on the mostly abandoned parade route. All they found was a group of young, hooting pranksters.
The next day, a Washington Post columnist doing a wrap-up of the sights and sounds of Inauguration Day reported on our little ruse. It was a more innocent time and a more hopeful one than is our own today. If we can't recapture the innocence, let's pray that we may recapture, even at this late date, the hope.
*Anthony Robinson, a pastor of the United Church of Christ, is a speaker and teacher.
Author: by Anthony B. Robinson* Guest Columnist