The H Word
On the Inauguration, the "Historic" Week, and the Problem with Living in the Present Tense
In the hours before the historic swearing in under the historic sky on the steps of the historic United States Capitol, I ate some historic toast. That was the game all year, putting "historic" in front of everything. It was "Barack Obama's historic campaign for president," the Los Angeles Times said. It was "one of the nation's most historic elections," said the Washington Post, and black voters were "energized to cast a historic vote." Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes described the evening when Obama first appeared as the president-elect as "an unseasonably warm and thoroughly historic November night," and Laura Bush told Tom Brokaw, "I think it's a major historical event for the United States." When Rahm Emanuel was said to be weighing whether to become Obama's chief of staff, he told reporters, according to the New Republic, that what attracted him to the job was being "chief of staff to a historic presidency at a historic time." And two weeks before the inauguration, a New York Times piece headlined "Networks to Usher In Historic Presidency" reported that "producers want to ensure that the broadcasts acknowledge the historic nature of the day" and that "historic images will also play a role in the proceedings" and quoted George Stephanopoulos as saying, "It's a historic time and a historic president facing historic challenges."
All time is historic. Each American presidency is as much a part of history as every other one. The word began to sound suspicious, euphemistic, inexact. The people using it were trying to say something but seemed to be suffering a collective crisis of vocabulary. The election was meaningful, was the prevailing connotation, though beating ceaselessly at a word tends to make it mean less. Or it was momentous, a very exciting thing to be part of, though "historic" seems to negate the present tense. It wasn't until my brother, a second lieutenant in the army bound for Iraq, told me over Christmas that he'd recently gone skydiving for the first time and that it was "intense"—a buzzword of our generation—that it dawned on me that historic might just mean intense.
"It's like history is happening right now," a grinning black guy, standing in line at a Dupont Circle bar the weekend before Inauguration Day and asked for his thoughts, said. "I'm excited about history."
"So, you're looking forward to the future, to when you can look back on this?" I said.
"Yeah, I guess so."
It's as if being surrounded by information has dislocated us in time—everything is tagged/explained/processed/filed/fed back to us, sometimes before it's happened. Wikipedia effectively swore in Barack Obama weeks beforehand on its 2009 page, under "Predicted and scheduled events." Every stage of the campaign was branded a historic moment, each first more historic than the last, so by the time of the inauguration, the word no longer seemed able to describe what was happening. You got the sinking feeling that it was all being mischaracterized, not looked at directly, preemptively shuffled into the dustbin of nostalgia, prepackaged as a memory, passed over. You started to wonder if Obama had somehow broken the rules of time, making time move in every direction simultaneously, and if calling things historic before they'd even happened was emblematic of the phenomenon.
In fairness, Obama started it. In June of 2008, after the primaries, Obama said, "Tonight we mark the end of one historic journey with the beginning of another." The five words "this defining moment in history" were a staple of his campaign rhetoric, and utterly brilliant, because one of the things the word "history" allowed Obama to do was to summon the specter of centuries of black Americans being enslaved, robbed, tortured, raped, hanged from trees, burned alive, dehumanized, disenfranchised, segregated—being treated in ways it is punishing to imagine—without having to rehearse the well-worn theater of grievance. (Or the "ledger of slights," as he calls his own racial humiliations in his first memoir.) Obama could say "history" and people knew what he was talking about without having to talk about it. This was yet another example of his mastery of the subtleties—the loopholes, the quiet energy, the grace—of language.
The morning of the inauguration, the highways and bridges into the capital were restricted or closed entirely, as the text-messaged "inauguration updates" confirmed, so metro was the way to go. (You signed up for these updates by texting "HISTORY" to 56333.) People with a shared past, a common experience, the long journey that has been the last two years, pressed themselves into every available corner of the train, and waited, and waited. When it finally started moving, passengers chanted, "Yes! We! Can!"—only for the train to slam to a stop again, sending everyone into everyone else. This happened repeatedly, for hours. Those of us who boarded at the remotest stations were luckiest, because once we started moving there wasn't room at subsequent stations to let anyone on, much as they pleaded, wild-eyed, hopeful, banging on the windows. Around the two-and-a-half-hour mark, a lady in a jacket with ski-lift tags on it standing next to a lady wearing a homemade blanket said, "As long as I get off metro and see blue sky, I will be okay." This was less about wanting to get off the train than wanting to be out and in the moment—to finally arrive.
It was below freezing when we got to the National Mall, the Potomac River frozen solid, the urinals in the porta-potties steaming furiously as you peed, but the forecasted snow hadn't materialized, which meant, at least historically, that we were doing okay. The second coldest inauguration in history was Ulysses S. Grant's second, in March of 1873, when the music came to a stop because the musicians' spit froze their instruments and the canaries brought into the ballroom to sing while guests danced, writes the historian Paul F. Boller, "tucked their bills under their wings and froze to death in their cages." The miserable weather at William Henry Harrison's inauguration, in 1841, was matched only by the miserableness of the address he'd prepared—nearly two hours, the longest ever—and since he refused to wear a hat or coat while riding to or from the Capitol, or while he was orating, he was worn out that night, had a cold by the next day, and was dead of pneumonia within a month. Weather is one way to see a moment in the present: the physical sensation of being there, the shadows it casts on the proceedings. The particulars of weather make history more alive. The coldest inauguration was Ronald Reagan's second; the warmest inauguration was Reagan's first.
The weather on January 20, 2009, is something the people who'd been waiting in the cold since before dawn will never forget. The other- worldly vantage from the foot of the Capitol was not the Capitol but the view backward, at 1.8 million spectators, the most in history, chanting, "Oh-bomb-uh! Oh-bomb-uh!"
It was surprising that such a watershed moment, at such an ominous time, was embroidered in such whimsical fluff, details posterity won't remember: the glittering thing affixed to Aretha Franklin's forehead; Rick Warren's storybook-sweet invocation imagining "Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses... shouting in heaven" while the cutest clouds tumbled by overhead; John Roberts's flubbing of the adverb in the oath; the John Williams composition based on a Shaker tune and the ensuing "controversy" about it not having been played live; Elizabeth Alexander's poem about people walking down the street; and Reverend Joseph Lowery's Seussical benediction ("When brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man," etc.).
But Obama, lately steeped in the work of the famous gloombot Abraham Lincoln, did something darker, had a different idea of the moment. He began and ended tempestuously: "Every so often, the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms," he said in the opening seconds of his address, and toward its closing he said, "With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come." Between the storms were words that matched what the president told reporters he was going to do: to "capture as best I can the moment we are in." Lincoln proved you don't need big words, or a lot of words, to do that. As Jonathan Raban pointed out in the Wall Street Journal on January 10, the Gettysburg Address is "a miracle of verbal compression, so tightly packed with layers of implication that even now historians and critics are still uncovering fresh subtleties in its scant 270 words." Those 270 words "redefined the purpose and meaning of the nation." Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal... government of the people, by the people, for the people...
While not as distilled or deathy as the Gettysburg Address, Obama's address did have a distinct redefining-the-meaning-and-purpose-of-the-nation aspect. Look how humbly, how originally, Obama refers to what everyone for years has referred to as our dependence on foreign oil. Our dependence on the phrase our dependence on foreign oil has lowered the phrase into a cliché, and nothing invites you to shut off your mind, to assume you get something and lose interest, than a cliché. Obama's reinvention: "Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." Those words bore deep into your brain and grow and glow. It's a few words longer than "of the people, by the people, for the people" and less syntactically sticky, but it completely renovates the idea. It draws together war, energy, climate change, the American desire to win, science ("evidence"), and the present moment ("each day"). Boom. What more could be said?
There were flashes of romanticist, Whitmanesque, cyberpastoral beauty:
We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.
It's hard to listen to Obama and not think of him as an improbable consolidation of the best traits of his forebears, or at least to hear echoes of older voices—in the above case, Lincoln's "to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds" and Dr. Martin Luther King's "we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Come to think of it, there is also a storm in Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" tale about a little girl learning that colored children aren't allowed in the amusement park and the "ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky." And there is something of W. E. B. Dubois—who called slaves "the dark human cloud" hanging behind the dispute between North and South—in the storm-cloud stuff, the harnessing-of-the-soil stuff, the emphasis on labor and progress.
The speech was full of rebuke for Bush, but carried off with an Olympian decorum, including the most gorgeous and forward-thinking denunciation of violent radicalism an American president has yet to utter: "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." Bush was sitting only a few feet away, but Obama's criticism was so polite and thorough, you wonder how much Bush absorbed, how much he registered, what he thought of the utterly pleasant notion that Obama's administration would do its business "in the light of day," whether he recognized that Obama's words about violent radicalism reverberated with the reality of how much Bush has destroyed.
Toward the end, he mentioned the Civil War, extracting nothing but promise from it ("We cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass"), and then, continuing his march into the past, Obama closed with the man whose monument presides over the Mall:
In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:
"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."
America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
After the speech there was the expected storm of applause, and then everyone's own inner silence, the formless moment of organizing judgment, and a lot of people ended up saying that they found it wanting. The Stranger's national-politics reporter, Eli Sanders, was disappointed. The speech "was not as great as it could have been," wasn't "soaring" enough, was "without a climax," he blogged. Most committed observers agreed. What did they want from the speech—that speech!—that they didn't get? Wasn't the speech itself the climax? Was the problem that the speech wasn't written for the immediate moment? That it was written for the future, for a future reality that the words of the speech will have helped shape? The desire to enjoy the speech in the moment, and to see it as a product of history, and to assess whether it will have gone down as a success 50 or 100 years hence, was possibly too much to ask of it. But it gets better every time you replay it on YouTube. When I watch it, I can't help imagining America many years from now, an America that no longer runs on oil pulled from the earth, that has curtailed or reversed the warming of the planet, that is uncompromised by foreign entanglements with oil-rich countries, and the historians trying to track the moment when everything changed landing on that "Each day brings further evidence..." line. I see shadows in its letters, see it carved in stone.
The Gettysburg Address, likewise, was shrugged off on the day it was delivered, maybe because Lincoln invited that response ("The world will little note nor long remember what we say here..."). Most of the people who heard it "reacted to it with criticism or indifference," writes Lois J. Einhorn, author of a book about Lincoln's oratory, and there was little or no applause. Most of the attention went to another speech given that day, a ponderous, two-hour ordeal by Edward Everett—former congressman, Harvard president, Massachusetts governor, United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, and United States Secretary of State—the man and his speech now forgotten. The Gettysburg Address is famous for having risen to the moment, but it didn't. It rose to other moments, future moments.
There are, humbly submitted, 15 too many words in that last paragraph of Obama's first inaugural address—the cliché "by our children's children," unnecessary considering the coming "future generations"; the redundant "when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end," considering the not-turning-back-or-faltering part. The quibble is only because, should it come to pass the speech gets carved into permanence someday, well, fewer words just look better.
In addition to wanting to harness the sun, to defeat our adversaries, and to lay digital lines that feed our commerce, Barack Obama wants to take a walk. But he can't. Not being able to take a walk around the neighborhood is, Obama told 60 Minutes in November while sitting next to his wife, one of the "things we're not adjusted to." There is a haunted quality about Obama, a sadness on which, through self-control, he puts a good face.
This longing of his—to take the odd walk—was on my mind three days after Inauguration Day, while walking to the Lincoln Memorial from the Federal Triangle metro station. Empty bleachers still sitting there on Pennsylvania Avenue. Heaps of trash at the curbs. The Capitol Building lit up like a souvenir at the end of the avenue. Five thousand porta-potties still standing by, the stuff inside them probably frozen. Stacks of rented fences, and many more rented fences not stacked yet. Empty vendor tents flapping in the wind. Rented outdoor lights lighting up empty patches of grass.
Besides what it's done for the careers of Sarah Palin, Tina Fey, and Arianna Huffington, not to mention the careers of the words "hope" and "change" and "history," this political season has deepened and extended the successes of Abraham Lincoln, who you might have thought couldn't get any more popular. The night of my walk, from afar, the Lincoln Memorial looked very Hollywood, like the site of a party, with flashbulbs going off constantly, more than a dozen per minute.
The previous Sunday, there'd been a concert on these steps. And though the show was a parade of celebrities—Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Mary J. Blige, Stevie Wonder, Tiger Woods, Queen Latifah, James Taylor (certain people cried while he sang "Shower the People," because certain people were standing next to their dad, who listened to James Taylor a lot when certain people were very young, a dad who, even though he voted Republican, drove his son into the city to be with him on this day and put his arm around him at exactly the right moment), Steve Carell, Tom Hanks—in spite of all those megawatts, the real star of that concert was the past. The show included footage of FDR, of JFK, of MLK, of Marian Anderson, and the two words the celebrity presenters uttered most were "Abraham Lincoln."
And even though commentators and artists have been merging Lincoln and Obama for a while now, the thing that truly ties Obama to Lincoln is not slavery. It's not trains, it's not Illinois, it's not improbable political victory. It's their genius at laying down sentences of almost religious force, strengthened with Christian themes but made secretly complicated by their ambivalent relationships to Christianity. According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, when Lincoln was asked, after the death of his first love, Ann Rutledge, "Don't you believe that you might see her again?" his reply was, "I wish I did, but I'm afraid I don't"—he didn't believe in the afterlife. Fred Kaplan, in a recent biography, goes further: While Lincoln had "no objection to the rhetoric of Christianity as a vehicle to assist in the nation's redemption," he was "a nonchurchgoer and not, in any meaningful sense, a Christian at all. A rationalist and a skeptic, he did not, and was never to, believe in the divinity of Jesus, the atonement, the resurrection, or the immortality of the soul."
Obama is likewise a rationalist and skeptic, one for whom the decision to become a Christian was simply that, a decision—"a choice and not an epiphany," he has written. As he describes in The Audacity of Hope, when his daughter asked him about death, he "wondered whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn't sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure where the soul resides or what existed before the big bang." When Obama, in his inaugural address, gave that shout-out to "nonbelievers" in his litany of the varieties of American faith, you almost had to wonder if he was talking slightly, secretly, about himself.
The mob of people at the Lincoln Memorial turned out to be no-choice abortion activists, so giddy in Lincoln's presence that they were jumping off the steps to get midflight photos for their Facebook pages. Off to Lincoln's left, a self-appointed tour guide was directing his friends to read the part in Lincoln's second inaugural address—all of it carved there on the wall—about the North and the South praying to the same god: Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.
He proudly counted the number of times God is mentioned in the speech—three. "They don't talk like this anymore," he said.
The Lincoln Memorial is an object of pilgrimage, perhaps America's most sacred secular temple. The statue is hard and magnificent, as if to embody Lincoln's immortality, but it's the words that are immortal—the nonbeliever and the evangelical stand in front of them in equal ecstasy. I stood there and read the second inaugural speech as people took pictures of it, and then walked to the other side and read the Gettysburg Address as people took pictures of it, and then went back to read the second inaugural again, and while I did, someone asked me if I could step to the right a little so he could get a better picture of it. Just words, I kept thinking. This is Lincoln's most fundamental link to Obama. The vessel of their spirit is not Christianity; the vessel of their spirit is writing. And writing endures. I thought about the two-ness of Abraham Lincoln—Abraham Lincoln the man (high-pitched voice, self-educated) and Abraham Lincoln the idea (the irrevocable, incantatory writing). I thought about the two-ness of Barack Obama, not just the two-ness he has written about most, the two-ness of his race, but about the two-ness his writing has created: Barack Obama the man (basketball player, BlackBerry user) and Barack Obama the idea (the speeches, the symbolism). The former, at one point or another, will cease to exist. The latter is history.