Commentary: Obama takes oath as America reinvents again

The Miami HeraldJanuary 20, 2009 

"And if that don't do, then I'll try something new." – Smokey Robinson

It begins before the sun does.

Not yet 5 a.m. and there is at a suburban Metro station a line of people going out of the station and up the escalator and around the corner and down to the far, far end of the parking lot. In town, it's worse.

They crowd into this city, into their capital, like ants crowd atop a sugar mound, for the new president's inauguration. They have come in numbers that make it impossible, sometimes, simply to move.

They have come from dining room tables where bills are stacked beneath pink slips. They have come from sick rooms where loved ones have died, literally, of poverty. They have come from a dawning realization that they were sold a war they didn't need to wipe out weapons that didn't exist. They have come from bar stools and church pews, from classrooms and factory floors and from mansions.

Beyonce is here, Denzel Washington is here, Jay-Z and Diddy are here. And Motown poet Smokey Robinson is here to see, as he puts it, "the arrival of the real meaning of the United States of America."

They have come out of a growing sense, shared now by the vast majority of Americans, that the country is fast moving in the wrong direction. In poll after poll in recent months, Americans have been found depressed and pessimistic about their country.

But the genius of America is that here, unlike in Cuba or North Korea, the people are empowered, when they don't like a thing, to change it. Try something and if that don't do, try something new. Every four years, America gets the option of reinventing itself. You wonder if Americans really appreciate what a miracle this is.

Maybe this year, they do. Maybe in this crisis moment, with the economy broken, with war on two fronts, with palpable fatigue of the lies, alibis, incompetence, and tolerance of incompetence that have characterized the last eight years, they have a renewed appreciation for their ability as Americans, when displeased, to choose something new.

Maybe this, along with the history being made here, is why they have come to their capital in numbers that beggar description, an ocean of people stretching west from the mall, farther than eyes can see.

When the outgoing president appears, they boo him, taunt him with an iconic chorus: "Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye."

When Barack Obama arrives, when he takes the simple, ancient oath that makes him president, they erupt with something more than joy, some pent up something – relief, perhaps – that bursts out of them like water.

His speech is workmanlike, with few of the rhetorical frills for which he is known. He offers implicit, surprisingly pointed criticism of the president he replaces, promising a rebirth of American leadership on the world stage, a restoration of science, and an end to petty, partisan politics. He rejects as false "the choice between our safety and our ideals."

And he calls upon Americans to embrace responsibility. He urges them to look to the past to find confidence for the future. "Starting today" he says, "we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

Smokey Robinson, who is 68, looks on with his chin elevated and something proud and distant in his eyes.

And if there is a subtext to Obama's words, it is as profound as it is simple: We start fresh now, and there is a new sheriff in town. For those who have crowded into the capital, it seems enough. They disperse in huge, slow-moving crowds down the broad avenues and side streets, talking excitedly as vendors move among them, hawking T-shirts, caps and calendars bearing the name and image of the 44th president of the United States.

It is a clockwork miracle, Americans, trying something new.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.

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