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Notes on an Inauguration

An aged Jew dies and ascends to heaven. Upon meeting God, he asks, "When will there be a Jewish president?"  God answers: "Not in your lifetime."  "And when will there be a black president?" inquires the recently deceased. "Not in … Read More

By / January 20, 2009

An aged Jew dies and ascends to heaven. Upon meeting God, he asks, "When will there be a Jewish president?"  God answers: "Not in your lifetime."  "And when will there be a black president?" inquires the recently deceased. "Not in my lifetime," replies the deity.

A joke, said Nietzsche, is the epitaph on the death of a feeling, and that feeling of shrugging hopelessness is, we can all agree, long gone. It may well be the case that in four or eight years time, Obama will leave office with many clamoring for the end to presidential term limits. Alternatively, there may be a large and loud chorus wishing him well but in a hurry to welcome the first female chief executive, or yet another prosaic but genial male WASP.  Today’s ceremony has all the uncomfortable features of a royal investiture; little acknowledged amid the kitsch trinkets, the Top 40 serenades and the endless queques of hungry historical witnesses in Washington is that this is an employee’s first day on the job. The man himself is still very much a blank canvas, which is why his many votaries — as well as recent converts — can find whatever it is they’re looking for on it, owing to their own individual brushstrokes.

I wasn’t entirely sold on Obama when I voted for him (I bought in a foreclosure market), and it still remains to be seen whether his dual defeats of a formidable primary rival, and a not-so-formidable general election rival, were indications of great political skill or harbingers of true leadership. (More than one shrewd commentator has remarked on Obama’s unmistakable gift of good fortune; just try tallying up all the eerily near-miss events that led to this moment.) One advantage he has right from the start is knowing almost exactly what he’ll be up against: two wars, an economy in ruin, a nuclearized North Korea and Iran, the refurbishing of the American "brand," and… what else?  Oh yes, the inevitability of another act of hideous holy violence on these shores, which may, through no immediate fault of his own, happen on his watch. What surprises after the blood-brutal dawn of the 21st century apart from the landing of extraterrestrials?

Next stop, optimism rehab. I say this copping to my own feelings of sentimentality, knowing that on this frigid winter’s day, a major stain on our republic is effectively washed clean, almost two hundred years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and forty-five years after the moral ascendancy of Martin Luther King.

Poetry can do justice, it’s true, but any critic worth his salt will tell you it more often specializes in bathos. Let us hope that our most literary modern commander-in-chief never loses sight of the fact.

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