Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

The inauguration: a high-flying day to remember

Our neighbor Barb had a bunch of people over this morning to watch the inauguration ceremonies, and the mood was festive: Coffee and bubbly for breakfast will do that.
But it wasn’t just the refreshment. There was relief, and anticipation, and — OK, yes — hope. A sense that, as another neighbor, Karen, put it, “now we can have our flag back.” And indeed, she and her husband Ted had hung theirs on their front porch. Inspired, my wife followed suit. Beats all those years we’ve had the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag folded in the bedroom drawer.

What struck me most during this long but compelling (and by the looks of it, very cold) morning was that the power of language has reasserted itself at the center of our national conversation.
Like Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr. and his model, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama speaks with a plain but lofty straightforwardness. He assumes a certain level of intelligence on the part of his listeners, an ability to follow an argument. He was gracious in victory, which might be a tougher task than being gracious in defeat. He talked down to no one, but encouraged everyone to look up. When he spoke to a particular constituency it was not, as is usual with politicians, with an air of pandering or cynical duplicity but with a measure of inclusiveness and respect. And he melded, as no other politician I can think of since John F. Kennedy, the descriptive and inspirational aspects of language: a vision, yes, but also a caution that realizing a vision requires hard work. Obama’s pie is not in the sky. It’s grounded, practical, sustaining. And if it’s his recipe, it takes a lot of cooks.

I have no illusion that miracles will be worked. Barack Obama waves no wands, and he will make mistakes — probably a lot of them. He is only, it seems prudent to remind some of his more fervid followers, human. But he represents in so many ways the best of what being human means. And by loving and respecting language — by being able to articulate both his own goals and his vision of what our vast and intermingled culture can and ought to be — he helps all of us articulate our own roles in the body politic.

I’ve long believed that Abraham Lincoln is one of the tiny handful of genuine literary geniuses the United States has produced.
In the beginning was the word, and it created reality. Oratorically, Obama is is no Lincoln, at least not yet: For clarity and conciseness and passion tethered to intelligence, nothing can match the Gettysburg Address. But clearly, from a literary point of view, Obama is in the Lincoln grain. He has the gifts to be, in the Lincolnian sense, a citizen artist. And it’s been a long time since the White House has seen the likes of that.

So, let the flag fly. Maybe this time, we can look at it as a promise and not a provocation.

King, Obama, TR and Taft: thoughts about America

Today, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I’m thinking not just about the great civil rights leader but also about the state of the nation — where we’ve been, where we are, where we might be going. That leads me to reflections on a couple of former presidents, and also on the challenges facing our newest president, Barack Hussein Obama, who will be sworn into office tomorrow. And I’m thinking of what advice Dr. King, who never held a public office but was one of our greatest leaders ever, might have for Mr. Obama, who takes office at a time of multiple perils and instability.

So, first: to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the man who succeeded TR as president in 1908 and whose bid for a second term Roosevelt scuttled in his own failed third-party campaign in 1912, awarding the presidency to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. We don’t usually think of Taft as one of our more nimble presidential thinkers, but he did have his moments, as Candice Millard passes along in her fine book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, which we discussed earlier here. Here’s what Taft had to say about the man who first put him into the White House and later kicked him out:

“The truth is, he believes in war and wishes to be a Napoleon and to die in the battle field. He has the spirit of the old berserkers.”

Roosevelt was a great man, but we’ve had enough of that. You can’t say George W. Bush has the spirit of a berserker — this is not a man who wants to go onto a battlefield and join in the carnage himself — but he has acted with an impetuous relish for war when patience and diplomacy would have served the entire world far better. Obama, we have the feeling, is not a rash man. Yet, as all presidents are, he will always be pushed by those advising quick and violent action.

So it’s good — not just today, but all days — to listen to Dr. King. Here are a few of his thoughts, for Barack Obama and for all of us:

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

“One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society… shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

“War is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow.”

“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”