It all seemed to be happening last week, in DC and beyond, and little of it was good. As Newsweek’s Howard Fineman wrote: “The rhythms of January are all wrong.”
There was that sad and grasping loser, Roland Burris, appointed by impeached Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (crudely yet effectively playing the race card), being sworn in as a US Senator.
There was Tim Geithner, Obama’s pick for the all-important post of Treasury Secretary, revealed to have defaulted on some payroll taxes and having his confirmation hearings jubilantly postponed by Senate Republicans until this week.
There was that cat with nine lives, Hillary Clinton, charming her way through her own confirmation hearings, while leveller heads in both Congress and the media warned of the virtual certainty that, sooner or later, Obama’s foreign policy would be compromised by conflicts of interest between it and the money-raising ventures among foreign leaders and businessmen of his Secretary of State’s hubby.
There was the former chairman of the NASDAQ, Bernie Madoff, arrested for a $50 billion (that’s billion) pyramid scam which des-troyed many charities and pension schemes along with a number of fat-cat investors, travelling to and from his bail hearings in a bulletproof vest, so great was the fury of Americans crippled economically by the current Wall St-Main St collapse.
And all this while, in the Middle East, Israel hurried to finish bombing a defenceless Gaza back to the Stone Age before losing the protection of its enabler, GW Bush.
As for the latter:
A propagandist to the last — and no doubt also proselytizing to fend off the war crimes’ charges that even he must fear he may yet face — Bush was conducting an unprecedented round of ‘exit interviews’ and farewell functions and addresses, before retiring to Camp David for his last weekend as President — whence will come, no doubt, an epidemic of last-minute presidential pardons: himself in effect inoculating himself.
And while, as usual, the mainstream US media hesitated between being wryly skeptical and ‘evenhanded’ towards the departing president and his veep, it fell to a pseudonymous Daily Kos blogger to sum up their tenure with the required moral outrage:
“The Smirk and the Snarl will fly away and take their audacious, minute-to-minute mendacity with them,” he or she wrote. “But the destruction they leave behind is deep and wide: a shredded Constitution, a wrecked economy, a worsened environment, a shattered multilateralism, a strengthened plutocracy, a partisan legal system, an undermined scientific community, crippled national security, trashed diplomacy, battered checks and balances. These will not — cannot — be fixed in a few months or even a few years.
“Which made the aggressive treacle of Mister Bush’s farewell address all the more insufferable. A man who showed a relentless inability to act until his handlers told him what to do, dared speak to us of trust, decisiveness, toughness. We know the truth of that. We saw it on that awful day which Mister Bush conjured up once again in his Thursday night goodbye. If we hadn’t known we were in trouble previously, we learned it watching him with ‘The Pet Goat’ in his hands, doing nothing, waiting, as always, for someone to rescue him.”
Historians have already begun fleshing out the arc of destruction, both domestically and globally, in spheres ranging from the economy to the civil fabric, to the peace of nations, to the rule of law, which the 43rd president inscribed in his clownish term of office. But the seminal crime of the man who blithely informed the American electorate at various times that “I have opinions of my own, strong opinions, but I don’t always agree with them”; that “More and more of our imports come from overseas”; and that “the problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur,” may well have been stupidity. (Hi there, Sarah Palin.) That he could be installed by powerful interests in the most important office in the world — and then proceed to get himself re-elected — is an ominous indictment of the US political system itself, and one that should not now be forgotten with a sigh of relief.
And yet the mood in DC and the wider America as the inauguration of President-elect Obama approaches rather resembles that of last Thursday, when a crippled jetliner made a miraculous landing on the Hudson River and all 155 passengers and crew lived to tell the tale. It’s a mood of wonder, deep happiness and celebration. Just as Obama won on November 4 with more votes than had ever been cast for a presidential candidate; just as his popularity rating now exceeds that of all Presidents-elect since Eisenhower; so, upward of three million people are expected to bring the US capital into gridlock on Tuesday, and billions more to watch the inauguration on television − and let no cynic rain on their (and our) parade.
The challenges facing Obama in the world are daunting; indeed, some may be insoluble. But by itself Obama’s elevation heals the soul of the world — or at the very least launches that healing — from what’s been the grievous wound inflicted on it for 500 years.
Bill Cosby recounted last week how he took photos of his parents and dead brother with him on November 4 and, once in the voting booth, took them out and said, “OK, family, now we’re going to vote.” No one who’s not African-American can comprehend what the miracle of Obama’s election means to them. Suffice to say it parallels — quite exactly, actually — what Moses’ parting of the Red Sea meant to the Jews.
But by the same token, you and I, in these Black and mixed-race, multicultural islands and lands, already know the mixed-race, Hawaiian-Indonesia Obama more intimately than his white compatriots can. And we — along with the rest of the watching billions, from Caracas to Santiago, from Morocco to Cape Town and beyond, in the teeming brown nations stretching east from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea — have a right to rejoice at this thunderclap moment in history. The latest Trinidadian braggadocio, “Next time they harrass me in Kennedy I go tell them, ‘Hear nuh, watch yourself! I go call Mr Obama for you, you know!’” may be a joke, but it secretes this truth: that, by itself, Obama’s election changes — not sufficiently, of course, but fundamentally — the relationship between whites and non-whites in the world, and our children will be the freer for it.
This is not to scant the achievement of so many white Americans (more voted for Obama than for any Democratic president since Johnson), who on November 4 abruptly broke out of the spiritual prison of their profoundly racist history. Their sense of their own freedom now is palpable, and they too have a right to cheer (or weep) on the Mall on Tuesday along with everyone else.
So: as the world hastens GW Bush on his way with the disgust he deserves, let’s fire one for Barack. The English poet Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Perhaps on Tuesday we shall know what he meant.