I guess you have to be a certain age for the full symbolism of Barack Obama's train ride into the capital to hit you right in the heart, so I hope younger readers will indulge me if I get a little misty. Although Obama's trip from Philadelphia to Washington was fashioned after a similar Lincoln inaugural journey in 1861, a decoy train was used so Lincoln could be snuck into the Capitol under cover of darkness by the Pinkerton Company. Obama took the same journey in the light of day and arrived in exaltation. I only hope some aide is whispering "glory is fleeting" into his ear for humility's sake, although he seems to have plenty.
There is only one other train ride in my memory where ordinary people stood 10 deep to catch a glimpse of their hero, and that was the funeral train of Robert F. Kennedy from New York to Washington, D.C., in August 1968. It was the most poignant and tragic public event I had ever witnessed, and since I was young and felt in the thick of current events, I was crushed by the promise destroyed and the hope denied.
But Obama seems indeed inspired in his use of symbolism. Just as Grant Park in Chicago — a place infamously barred to protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention — was used for Obama's election-night victory celebration, so this jubilant train trip lined with exuberant well-wishers stands in juxtaposition to that painful memory of so many years past. It's almost as if something that was taken from me a long time ago has been given back.
I have no illusions that Obama is the "messiah," I just believe he is the right man for this extremely difficult job, and I feel grateful for his election and confident in his abilities. Aside from electing a black man, I still find it astounding that the country elected an intellectual. It wasn't so long ago that "intellectual" was a dirty word, as in "pointy-headed" and other scornful descriptions used by the Tom DeLays and Karl Roves of this world. Clinton had an enormous intellect, but he was too much of a redneck-yahoo to be an intellectual. Kennedy was a brilliant rogue. The last intellectual to run for president was Adlai Stevenson, and the scorn from his political opponents over his braininess was sufficient for every candidate since to dumb down the message. Not this time. And people seem to be responding well to being talked to like adults.
Despite these desperate times, the excitement over Obama's inauguration is palpable and Rooseveltian in its scope. His speech in Philadelphia contained these majestic words: "And yet, while our problems may be new, what is required to overcome them is not. What is required is the same perseverance and idealism that our founders displayed. What is required is a new declaration of independence, not just in our nation, but in our own lives — from ideology and small thinking, prejudice, and bigotry — an appeal not to our easy instincts but to our better angels."
Language like this, if taken seriously, could well save us as a civil society.
There's a final irony to this scenario, and it's that the Bush presidency really began with a airplane catastrophe in lower Manhattan, and it ends with one as well, only with an entirely different result. Bush's tough-guy image was built standing on the rubble of the Twin Towers, but his farewell speech to the nation, with its supporting cast of human props, resembled the final episode of Seinfeld. There was the old fireman whom Bush draped his arm on while standing atop the rubble; there was a Katrina survivor (whose arm must have been mightily twisted). The only old face missing was Lyndie England giving a thumbs-up.
Only hours before, some sort of miracle had occurred in the Hudson River, and a true American hero emerged: pilot "Sully" Sullenberger. But Bush was too self-absorbed and oblivious to acknowledge the event, and, of course, it's far too late for him to exploit it now. Obama already called it. Whatever the significance, I think it's far better to begin a new administration following a miracle than a disaster. Perhaps an era of new heroes has begun.
Randy Haspel writes the blog Born-againhippies, where this column first appeared.