Inauguration morning, I joined a few of my CN&R colleagues at Café Flo to watch history. The effervescent Katie Raley, whose aunt was somewhere on the grounds of the Capitol, sat with us; a half-dozen others watched the flat-screen nearby.
Aretha Franklin: wow.
Vice President Joe Biden: good. (Realization that this means ex-Vice President Dick Cheney: better.)
President Barack Obama: monumental.
By the time you read this, the icon will have come down to earth. His administration had to hit the ground running to deal with the myriad challenges it inherited, and to live up to the promise—the promises—of his inspiring oration.
That speech struck chords with me again and again:
• “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”
• “Our workers are no less productive than when this [economic] crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. … But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions—that time has surely passed.”
• “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
• “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. … And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.”
• “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. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
• “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.”
Idealistic? Of course.
Impossible? Of course not.
The president is right: Sticking to values in times of peril is important, because even if you feel the ends justify the means, it’s undeniable that the means influence the ends.
There are right ways to do things, and wrong ways. If Obama’s speech is more than words—a plan rather than a string of platitudes—idealism and pragmatism will no longer be segregated.