The 2013 Inauguration: Poems and Prayers and Promises

Four years ago I was in the Sky News Australia newsroom in Sydney watching Barack Obama’s first inauguration when the tears started to flow.
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, began to sing My Country, Tis of Thee to a million people gathered around the mall in Washington, and to millions of viewers around the world. Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th president of the United States and the first African-American to take the office, gazed out at the sea of humanity.
It was a moment I will never forget.
Last Tuesday, I got up around 5am and watched the ceremony on CNN on IQ. The tears didn’t start this time until Senator Chuck Schumer, the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies, introduced James Taylor, who sang America the Beautiful while playing his guitar. Unlike Beyonce, he had no need to lip-sync. With James Taylor, you know you’ve got a friend.
The CNN cameras and directors took all the right shots and cutaways: the bright and beautiful faces of Americans, including Michelle Obama and her two daughters, celebrating the second swearing-in of the President they loved. Mitt Romney was nowhere to be seen.
One of the moments I quite liked was the reading of the inaugural poem, One Today, by a Hispanic, Richard Blanco, who also happens to be openly gay … but being gay was also openly celebrated at the inauguration. He’s an engineer, but became a poet and writes about growing up as a Cuban exile in New York and Miami. It’s a lovely poem, and it’s worth watching Blanco read it (it runs a bit over 7 minutes):
Here’s an excerpt:
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper —
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever.

The absent children remind us of the innocents killed in the Newtown school massacre, and Barack Obama’s gun control campaign. It’s also about workers, like Blanco’s mother, who rang up groceries so he could write this poem.
There were multi-racial overtones, of course, on this inauguration day. One of the most interesting – and nicest — was the brief appearance by Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the only Republican Congressman to speak at the inauguration. He was introducing Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to swear in Vice-President Joe Biden. Alexander mentioned Alex Haley, the famous African-American author, saying: “The late Alex Haley, the author of Roots, lived his life by these six words: Find the good and praise it.” But it turns out the Senator from the south and the author of the acclaimed novel, based on his family’s history and his ancestor Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in Gambia and sold as a slave in America, were long-time friends. Roots was also adapted into a TV mini-series, one of the most highly rated in history. Alex and Lamar’s story of friendship is one Barack Obama would love, and you can but hope he will follow Haley’s advice in his difficult dealings with congressional Republicans.
Speaking of ratings, CNN won the cable news figures on Inauguration Day, capturing 3 million viewers compared to 2.3 million for MSNBC and 1.3 million for Fox News. Fox is usually the cable news winner, but perhaps more people are getting sick of the spin the channel puts on anything to do with Barack Obama. For example, Bill O’Reilly, whose O’Reilly Factor is the main offender, was trying to put words into the mouth of one of his guests on his show after the Inauguration. Bob Woodward, the respected Watergate reporter and author of many books about the White House and its occupants, made the mistake of saying the Republicans and Democrats he talked to felt President Obama didn’t like the Republicans. O’Reilly jumped in: “He doesn’t like them because he feels they are the purveyors of white privilege, Bob.” Woodward replied: “I think he just doesn’t agree with Republicans on their agenda.” O’Reilly couldn’t let it go: “The Republican agenda, in the President’s mind, props up white privilege. Therefore, as the social justice champion, he has to tear that down. He doesn’t like the white privilege thing and he doesn’t like the Republicans trying to defend it … “ O’Reilly tried to get the last word in by changing the subject, but Woodward interrupted: “But I’m going to disagree. It’s a broader disagreement with the Republican agenda, and he hammered hard in the campaign, and he won tax increases for the top one per cent. That’s a big deal to him.” Game, set and match to Woodward.
Obama’s second inaugural speech wasn’t quite as impressive as the first, but he was doing something different this time: setting the agenda for his second term. It still had the Biblical rhetoric, the Martin Luther King Jnr cadence and the forefathers’ constitutional phrase: “We the people.” But it was targeting things he wanted to get done: gun control, equality for all, including gays and lesbians, women’s rights, climate change, and immigration, to name a few.
One quote that will get in the history books is: “My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.” Obama wants unity and he was obviously thinking of Republicans when he said: “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”
And the President’s bravest and most historic quote is this one: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” He was the first president to advocate gay rights in an inaugural address. (It was a far cry from Australia where Bob Katter’s Australia Party had to axe two of its potential candidates after they suggested banning gays from supervising children in kindergarten, thus linking gays and lesbians to paedophiles. )
Women’s rights were also part of the President’s story: “Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.”
And the story continued with immigrants: “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”
Also high on the agenda is climate change – an issue mostly ignored by the Republicans. But the President went on the attack: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.” Aware of the deniers, he added: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
Barack Obama was not as direct on gun control, but he’s already laid out his proposals and signed executive orders. The safety of America’s children was foremost on his mind: “Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”
The Inauguration of the President of the United States is the ultimate proof that democracy is alive and well. The theme of this year’s Inauguration, Our People, Our Future, is evident in a video on the Inauguration Committee’s website,, in which the President says it’s about making sure everybody in America gets a fair shot: “If you work hard, you can make it, regardless of the circumstances of your birth, or what you look like, or where you come from or what God you pray to.”
That’s the American Dream, and the dream of Dr Martin Luther King, in his speech at the March on Washington 50 years ago this August.
My dream is that Barack Obama gets his gun control plan through Congress, closes down Guantanamo Bay, as he promised four years ago, and lives up to another pledge in his speech this week:
What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.
On the eve of Australia Day, as the winners of Australians of the Year awards are about to be announced, it would be wonderful if Prime Minister Gillard could pay homage to our past and our future with an address like the one Obama gave this week.
If it does happen, with apologies to CJ Dennis, I will turn on the waterworks.

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