But there's a lot more to the excitement to which I will never fully be able to relate. Obama's inaugural marks more for so many people than just a simple handover of power; it marks a massive racial and generational step forward that even forty years ago was almost unthinkable. I don't think that anyone present for Dr. King's speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 could in their wildest dreams imagine that a young African-American -- not much older than Dr. King was on that August day -- would return to the steps of that memorial just 46 years later to give a speech, not as a minister or politician but as the president-elect of the United States. Even one of my heroes, John Lewis, one of the icons of the Civil Rights movement, still seems stunned by how far this country has come, and how quickly it has done it. (One of the best Capitol Hill newspapers, Politico, ran a great story about Lewis in today's edition: "A 'Down Payment' on the Dream.")
The generational change is more apparent to me. In fact, I've seen this change at work for a few years; it was always a sign to me of getting older that, while working in the House of Representatives, I saw more members of Congress and many more staffers who were nearly a decade younger than me. After getting over the shock of recognizing that I was getting older and that politics was getting younger, I also recognized how far we've come since the days of the Sam Rayburns and the Tip O'Neills and the Dwight Eisenhowers, days when you couldn't be taken seriously as a politician or a leader if you didn't have the age and experience to reinforce the perception that you should in fact be in charge. I get a sense of how the young voters of the 1960s felt when John Kennedy was elected, that they were finally being represented by someone who understood them and was one of them (in terms of generation, not money).
I did not vote for Barack Obama, but I took the time to look at him and his candidacy. The photo above, which regular readers of this blog will recognize, was taken at a rally I attended at American University in January of last year (the day he was endorsed by Ted Kennedy). On that day, when nearly 30,000 people crowded into back-to-back events at that college, I got a glimpse of the excitement that Obama was generating -- not just among black Americans, young Americans, or Democrats, but across all racial, political and generational lines.
Today, I have moved beyond watching Obama as a Republican or as an opponent; today, I will be watching as an American hopeful that things will be better for his daughters in the future. I will be watching on television with my daughters as they experience for the first time the peaceful transfer of power from one president to another. I will try and answer the questions that I know my oldest will inevitably ask about the day. And I will watch the faces of the men and women, young and old, black and white, who have traveled from near and far, from the United States and from overseas, as they celebrate the change in their lives and in the life of the country.
The election is over, and it is time to once again try and come together. I have friends and acquaintances who want Obama to fail -- little recognizing that if he fails, the country fails. There will be time enough to try and seat a new president in four years; until then, I think we should keep in mind the words of Bishop Gene Robinson from the invocation he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial just a few days ago:
... God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.
Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.
Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.
Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.
Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.
Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.
Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.
And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.