Today is one of those rare occasions when politics is not the most important thing in Washington D.C. Usually this happens on days of national mourning, but at least where state funerals are concerned it is difficult to separate the respect we may feel for the service of an elder statesman from the lenses through which we viewed their politics in life. Days that live in infamy can also have this unifying effect, but the universal bonds of grief we have felt on these mercifully few times in our history, and our resolution that our dead shall not have died in vain, comes from a place of both courage and outrage.
Today is different. Today there are many Americans who voted differently who are nonetheless proud and hopeful at the inauguration of Barak Obama. My conservative cousin Tigerhawk, to take one example, is in DC with his daughter today and says: "I, for one, can both fear the consequences of Democrats in control of the Congress with a popular president in the White House and recognize that this is a remarkable moment in history that should be enjoyed for its own sake."
There are people throughout much of the world who look to this watershed event as a sign of hope. There has not been an inaugeral that even approaches it as a symbolic milestone since JFK, and our memory of Kennedy and what his election represented is colored through the grief of his assassination. More than any president since Washington, at this moment Obama is a symbol quite apart from the qualities he brings to the office, or indeed whether he is up to meaningfully addressing the great challenges ahead. The expectations we have for him reflect those we have for ourselves. He invokes Lincoln and the 'better angels of our nature" and we want to be washed clean of the terrible stain of slavery and racial discrimination that has been with us since before our founding as a nation.
Obama is not the messiah. He does not have the power to heal us with his touch or absolve us of our sins. He comes to power at a time of great adversity and he is a mortal like the rest of us, doubtless with his own shortcoming and failings that we may yet come to recognize. We project our hopes and fears and expectations on him because deep down, and despite what our politics or material culture may value, we want to be judged by the content of our characters. We want our better angels to fly.
Even the hard-eyed pragmatists among us and those who know full well the inhumanity that our species is fully capable of exhibiting are watching the history we as a nation are making today. There can be no resting on these laurels, and the hard business of governing demands substance over sentimentality. None of that matters today.