Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- This inaugural week included a massive achievement in American racial history, an outpouring of civic participation and a gracious executive transition on both sides. But amid the celebration one could detect double standards all around.

If the outcome had been different in November, would John McCain's inaugural coverage have been quite as worshipful as President Obama's -- during which the "shiver" up the leg of journalists finally became full-fledged convulsions? Why were the biblical references in Obama's inaugural speech not considered a coded assault on the Constitution, as George W. Bush's allegedly were? And I can only imagine the cascades of hilarity and derision that would have come had Bush messed up the inaugural oath, no matter the cause.

But an aggrieved sense of victimhood is not attractive from any political perspective. And so, in honor of the "era of responsibility," I put aside such childish things.

Yet this week did clarify the contrast between two different types of Obama enthusiasm -- one admirable, the other insufferable.

The first kind of enthusiasm concerned Obama's racial background. It was reflected in the untethered joy of the Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction -- the joy of victory against centuries of racism, violence, cruel humiliation and stolen labor, in a nation where one in six Americans was once owned by another.

A few days before the inauguration, I spoke with Rep. John Lewis, who, at 23, preceded Martin Luther King to the podium at the March on Washington in 1963. On that day Lewis was impatient, demanding "we want our freedom and we want it now" in a speech that had to be toned down before delivery. "We had faith and confidence," he assured me. But at the time, the obstacles were massive. "Black men with doctoral degrees," he recalled, "were flunking the so-called 'literacy test' -- being asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of jelly beans in a jar."

"This is one of the finest periods in American history, to see the distance we have come in such a short period of time," he concluded. "Some force -- call it the spirit of history or God Almighty -- is intervening."

Any American with a sense of history should feel that sense of awe. Minorities of every background must feel it most deeply. As the father of multiracial children, I feel it deeply enough.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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