Warthen: Something completely different

Editorial Page EditorJanuary 20, 2009 

Perhaps it would be a bit much to quote from the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.” How about Monty Python? “And Now For Something Completely Different....”

There is a tension in the air today between two ways of viewing the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. On the one hand you have thousands upon thousands who have scraped and planned and arranged to be in Washington — or the millions upon millions who will be watching from a distance and with them in spirit — who are fairly vibrating, resonating with communal anticipation. This includes elderly black folk who are praising God because they never thought they’d see the day. It contains — just barely, given the magnitude of their excitement — young people of all colors who left school and jobs and suspended their lives for a year and more to work toward this day. And more conventionally, it includes Democrats who are as thrilled as any group of partisans have ever been that their guy is finally going to replace that other guy.

On the other hand, there are those who think this is all a bit much, or more than a bit: Whoop-tee-do, they think. A guy won an election. He’s just this guy, you know. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss. Nothing changes: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

Some of the latter, jaded, unexcited group are Republicans. Pretty much all of them are white. There’s not necessarily anything bad about them; they don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade. They just sort of want it over with. As Kathleen Parker suggests in the column on the facing page, there’s just so much earnestness and idealistic hoorah that one thinking person can possibly stand as we stride forth into this new age. That doesn’t make Ms. Parker a bad person. And I know that neither she nor the others in the “this is all a bit much” set are bad people, because, well, I’m sort of one of them.

Or at least, I was. In the last few days, I changed my mind. The cynics are wrong, and the folks who just can’t contain themselves have it exactly right.

I wrote the editorial above. I went into it as a chore that needed to get done and out of the way — one of those obligatory editorials you sometimes do, not because you had something you and your colleagues on the editorial board were burning to say, but because the particular moment in history demanded that you take note and say something.

You may think that writing an editorial is about figuring out how to say what you already know you think. And often it is. But sometimes, it’s a process in which you discover what you think. That’s what happened here. The more I looked and read and reflected upon where we are as a nation and how and why we got here, the more I realized how significant this inauguration is, and how it differed from the previous 13 of my lifetime.

No, it’s not that he’s a black guy. Yes, that’s a huge milestone for the country, and worth celebrating, but if you focus too much on that you miss just how different this moment is. As I said in the editorial, the nation chose much more than a racial first in this election: “It chose youth. It chose intellect. It chose pragmatism over the constant ideological bickering of recent years. It chose the promise of action rather than stalemate. It chose, in a word, change.”

Yes, any new president represents change. But this change is generational, and attitudinal, and fundamental. The closest thing in my lifetime was when the generation of Dwight Eisenhower handed off to the generation of John F. Kennedy, but even that falls short. In choosing Barack Obama, the nation really took a risk and got out of its comfort zone. For Democrats, the safe and obvious choice was Hillary Clinton, or someone like Joe Biden (a point that underlines Mr. Obama’s wisdom in choosing his running mate, a move that made the risk more palatable). In the general election, even the “maverick” opponent was the safer, more comfortable, more conventional choice.

This country decided it had had enough of the kinds of politics and government that we’ve had up to now. It chose a man who was practically a novice in politics and government — which made him untainted, but also meant he had almost no relevant experience. And yet, he possessed the eloquence and demeanor and intellect and attitude that persuaded us that he could deliver on the promised change.

And you know what? I think he can, and will. I’ve seen proof. One example, which speaks volumes: his decision to pull South Carolina’s own Sen. Lindsey Graham — John McCain’s closest acolyte, leading advocate of our nation’s presence in Iraq — into his circle of foreign policy advisers. By sending Sen. Graham with Sen. Biden to Iraq and Afghanistan, and then appearing with both men to draw attention to the fact, explaining that he was “drafting” Sen. Graham “as one of our counselors in dealing with foreign policy,” the president-elect charted new ground. He threw out the rule book of partisan and ideological convention, and he did so in the pursuit of the very best ideas, the ones most likely to serve the nation and its interests and allies going forward.

I’ve never seen anything like this, and neither have you. This is something completely different, and yet something that, after today, we’re going to see a lot more of. And that’s a wonderful thing for this country. It’s worth getting really excited about.

For more that’s different, go to thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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