President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address was much more than a speech, however satisfying and moving it may have been for hundreds of millions of Americans and others across the globe.
And it was much more than a political statement about what is on the agenda for the years 2009 through at least 2012.
Though many will grade the new president's rhetoric, and attempt to glean from it some guide to the term ahead, the significance of the speech has very little to do with its particular giver or its particular content. It's greatest significance is rather that it marks the completion of the repair of the Constitution which had been flawed in its framing because of its departure from the Declaration that preceded it all those years ago.
The Constitution was flawed because it had to be to give birth to the Union. The repair of that flaw was begun with Lincoln's election and the worst of the pain required by the repair was endured in the Civil War, though the suffering of blacks would continue through the long years of Jim Crow and of course even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But the terrible force of the Declaration's central demand --"that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"-- has rolled forward from 1776 until on January 20, 2009 it became embodied in the ascent to the nation's highest office of a black man. What had come into the world as a radical idea birthed by a slaveholder, Jefferson, became real in its most blindingly obvious form in the son of an African being sworn in on Lincoln's own Bible.
Barack and Michelle Obama's personal triumph is extraordinary, but it is also the triumph of an idea for which hundreds and thousands have fought and died over the centuries, and to which hundreds of millions more have been pledged. It is an idea birthed in America but which travels abroad now to the far corners of the world, and the finest moment's in the new president speech were those addressed to the dictators of the world and to the enemies of that idea.
"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
President Obama closed his remarks by quoting the father of our country George Washington, ordinarily an unremarkable borrowing, but in this context, at least a bit surprising, for the great Washington was also a slave-owner, and not one tortured by the institution in the way Jefferson was. Some of my conservative friends thought that the new president was too quick and perfunctory in his recognition of the departing President Bush, and a few more words addressed to him would have indeed been welcomed by the admirers of the 43rd president.
But it was remarkably gracious for the new president to summon the first president to the occasion of the completion of the work of Philadelphia in 1776. This does not mean, of course, that justice is established or that the human condition is closing in on the happiness we believe a perfected world would hold for all.
Only that in one country --the most powerful in all of human history-- there is no bar to anyone becoming its chief executive, no exception to the rule that all men and women are indeed created equal.
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