Just before noon, the time set for the passing of power, Dick Cheney, seen by many critics as the malign puppet master responsible for the Bush regime’s most nefarious deeds, was pushed in a wheelchair to the inauguration podium. Having pulled his back moving office, he appeared slumped, in pain, broken. It was a potent metaphor for a country equally debilitated; mired in war and facing an uncertain economic future.
Yet the swathe of flags and banners, upwards of 2 million, which fluttered between the cold stones of Washington’s famous shrines, spoke of nothing but optimism as Barak Hussein Obama took the stage to be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Millions more watched on TV and via the Internet as the first African American to hold such high office delivered a speech that would do little for the Vice President’s recuperation, yet offered hope and belief to a stricken nation.
Most of those tightly packed into the National Mall and shivering from the bitter cold, couldn’t see the ceremony and were forced to watch the inauguration unfold on huge TV screens. It didn’t matter. The throng that stretched from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial were there not to witness history but to participate in its creation. It was clear that the weeks since Obama’s victory at the polls had done little to quell the country’s appetite for a new dawn. At best this was a cleansing of the soul, at worst an exorcism, as America’s demons were drawn out and banished.
“We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America,” he began.
It was a sobering start, setting the tone for what was to be a solemn message. Conciliatory remarks had been made towards the Bush administration in recent days however it soon became evident that these good relations would not extend to the inaugural speech. Indeed, the denouement of outgoing regime, the most unpopular in living memory, was to witness an address that not only failed rehabilitate the 43rd president’s reputation or legacy but actively stamped on it.
“Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
He continued: “homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our healthcare is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”
It was a sombre assessment of the nation’s state and a clear repudiation of the outgoing administration. Those attached to the Bush camp sat just yards from the microphone must have shifted uneasily at the tone of the message. Still, worse was to come.
“We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” The words echoed down the Mall, a clear nod to recent foreign and domestic policy, seen by many as a betrayal of values enshrined in the American constitution. Invoking history, the assault continued: “our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
How Bush will be viewed by history is unknown. Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, rendition, Afghanistan, Katrina – words synonymous with the administration post 9/11. Should the project in Iraq succeed, history may glance more kindly on W, but for now he remains the symbol of America’s woes. Equally, how Obama deals with the terrorist threat over the forthcoming term will go a long way to defining his presidency, and there was a word of warning for the fanatics who will no doubt be looking to test the new man’s resolve.
“We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence, 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.”
The address also contained a mollifying message to the world: “to the grandest capitals and to the smallest villages, we are friends to those who seek a future of peace and dignity.”
Though short of a truly memorable one-liner, the address marked not only a transition in power but a shift in ideology as America once again became “ready to lead.”
For the millions on the Mall, including huge numbers of African Americans, the substance of the address paled in comparison to the significance of the day. Whatever policy changes unfold during Obama’s term, his election – that of an African American – has altered the character of America forever. Should his ideology hold firm, the ship, which, according to the country’s detractors, has been steered so ably off course since the collapse of the World Trade Centre, may once again find itself heading roughly in the direction of true north.
For the time being at least America strides confidently towards the future. Dick Cheney, flaccid in his chair, was wheeled away from the podium, down the red carpet and into history.