America is great because its citizens have the ability to simultaneously embrace multiple and conflicting views and to change those views over time.
That salient fact of American character was proven again on Tuesday when Barack Obama was Inaugurated as the nation’s 44th President.
The exhilaration of the event was obvious. As the nation’s first President of color, Obama wasn’t so much Inaugurated as he was Coronated. Trumpets blared. The crowd cheered and waved flags. Not since Kennedy’s Camelot era has the White House seen a president who appears to be almost as large as the position he holds; a rock-star in the Oval Office who, on some deep personal level, transcends many traditional political boundaries.
Yet Tuesday’s jubilation came in the shadow of the nation’s worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Even as President Obama gave his Inaugural speech, the Stock Market again spiraled downward. Unemployment will soon reach double-digits. Foreclosures continue to grow. Major stores are closing. Some banks are teetering. Uncertainty rules.
This dichotomy of euphoric celebration amid such economic ruin is uniquely American. We compartmentalize our emotions — and our politics — in a way that most other cultures can’t understand.
For one thing, win or lose, good or bad, Americans move on. We don’t hold grudges. Perhaps we don’t forgive so much as we forget. Whatever the reason, we don’t fret too much about the stains of the past and we hold to an optimistic worldview that tomorrow will certainly be better than today.
That ability to face forward is what led this nation to move, in my lifetime, from signs over water fountains that said “Colored,” to the first black man to hold the office of President.
But this compartmentalization and focus on the future can also be confusing. Under other circumstances, this week’s massive — and expensive — Inaugural celebrations would have been slammed as too gauche for the times. Had John McCain been elected and spent $150 million to celebrate during this time of economic turmoil, one can only imagine the class uproar that would have ensued.
Obama gets a pass on that because Americans have compartmentalized their economic woes from the expectations they have projected onto this young president’s shoulders. Times are bad, yes, but in this new and unique leader, Americans have hope. Americans celebrated Tuesday not just for Obama, but also for the expectation that we will move forward and things will be better. No traditional, gray-haired white man, in today’s political and economic climate, could have done the same.
Of course, this Inauguration has not happened simply by facing forward. Who did not see the historic irony in the fact that a man of color took the oath of President using the same Bible as Lincoln, the President of Emancipation? Even as we look forward, we reach back to the touchstones of the past in ways that are both iconic and ironic.
Race is the historic thread of this Inauguration. The nation’s history is bound up in race, from the original wording of the Constitution that decreed slaves 3/5 of a person, to the Civil War, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. All of that — the long march of history — led to Washington D.C. this week. It was the main reason so many people made not a “trip” to Washington, but rather a “pilgrimage.”
American political life embodies all these conflicting and varied emotions. Except for the fringes, we lack the emotional rigidity of older political cultures whose fault lines are etched in centuries of complex grudges. For the most part, Americans — black and white, rich and poor, young and old, Republican and Democrat — are full of political contradictions, but are sans ancient anchors of animosity. The election of a man of African heritage demonstrates this unique American trait of letting go of past sins.
Tuesday morning, America undertook the peaceful transfer of power amid a time of great peril. It was unique and historic. For a day, we were just Americans who — no matter what our political persuasion, no matter what our economic standing, no matter what our race or creed — embraced all that is good in the contradictions of our nation’s political soul.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.