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Obama's Second Helping

As President Obama took the oath again, Memphians were on hand to bear witness.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — There was a Memphis contingent at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama — not as numerous as four years before, when the advent of the nation's first African-American chief executive was recognized everywhere as a uniquely historic event.

This re-inauguration was by no means inconsequential, of course. As the president would note in his remarks, "decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay," even as partisan divisions persist and the nation, crippled by economic adversity when Obama first took office, struggles to continue what has so far been an incomplete recovery.

In any case, the Capitol Hill offices of U.S. senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander (a speaker in the inaugural ceremony) and of Tennessee's nine congressional representatives — especially that of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, who conducted an impromptu Sunday afternoon lottery for remaining inauguration tickets — were veritable beehives in the days leading up to the swearing-in ceremonies. And Memphians were well-represented at such ancillary events as the post-inaugural Tennessee State Society ball.

Perhaps appropriately, some of the 2008 attendees who returned to Washington for a second helping would see, quite literally, improved vistas. Four years ago, Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy had come with his then 9-year-old son Quinn, the two of them sharing the fate of the other holders of the now infamous purple-tinted tickets, who, through an organizational snafu, found themselves gated away from the Mall and forced to find a public TV screen elsewhere in town to see at least part of the ceremony.

This year, Mulroy was back, with Brandon, his "little brother" in a mentorship program, and had full access to a prime viewing area.

Equally well-served were Fred Johnson, the renowned educator who most recently served on the Transition Planning Commission, and his wife Dorothy. In 2008, the Johnsons spent most of Inauguration Day trudging through checkpoint after checkpoint before finding themselves in a remote holding area from which the events on the Capitol's west portico could only barely be glimpsed. This year, the Johnsons were in a seated area, close enough to read the president's lips if they chose to.

There were times when they and others up that way might have needed to. An anomalous add-on to the ceremony was supplied by an anti-abortion protester who climbed a tree on the Capitol grounds and was somehow allowed to stay there by security forces ringing the tree, as he kept up a hectoring commentary throughout the president's remarks.

In every sense, the man supplied a counter-narrative to Obama's hopeful prospectus, even to the point of countering the president's apostrophaic "God Bless America!" with a guttural "No, God damns America!"

Other commentaries were more benevolent and more unifying. Just before the final benediction came the official inaugural poem by Richard Blanco.

As the event emcee, New York's senator Chuck Schumer, solemnly introduced Blanco as the author of "words composed for the occasion," another, in some ways more fitting, intro came from a girl huddled with a group of shivering fellow co-eds among the giddy but worn-out standees in Union Square, a greeny, somewhat battered public sward just back of the Capitol's reflecting pool.

"I hope it's a haiku," she said, in a voice that carried far enough to get isolated laughs and applause from those who recognized her reference to the Japanese lyric form which restricts itself, more or less, to 17 syllables.

The poem, "One Today," wasn't a haiku, however; it was a longish blank-verse piece in 10 stanzas — about as prosaic as something called poetry can be — and delivered in an affectless tone that bespoke Blanco's original calling of civil engineer.

As a crowd-pleaser, he was in no way a competitor with Kelly Clarkson or Beyoncé, who did rousing versions of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "The Star Spangled Banner," respectively, or with the president himself.

But the rest of Blanco's vita — he is openly gay and a member of the generally conservative Cuban-American community — was right in line both with Obama's political coalition and with the president's renewed call for national unity.

And the poem reads better than it sounded on the Mall, especially in such home-spun and hopeful lines as:

"Hear: the doors we open/ for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,/ buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días/ in the language my mother taught me — in every language/ spoken into one wind carrying our lives/ without prejudice ... "

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