Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What the inauguration means to me

We are one. Yes we can. Hope.

In a campaign known for its slogans, I find it hard to reduce my thoughts about President Obama inauguration to a few words. But if I had to choose, I'd have to start with my kids.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would look at my children's early years in a semi-political context: my oldest son was born on Super Tuesday in 2000. We went house-hunting in Naperville during George Bush's inauguration, with Ricky sleeping in the back of the rental car. Some of Robby's first words were the call/response of a chant for Howard Dean in a Labor Day parade in 2003.

When September 11 happened, I hoped our President would seize the opportunity to confront the threat but reinforce what makes us great. Sadly, he chose a different path. I had trouble articulating my dissatisfaction with President Bush, until I had a phone call with a Greg Siskind, a good friend and a well-known immigration lawyer. Greg had a client who'd been locked up. Spent weeks in government custody, without access to counsel - nevermind that he was a citizen. His crime? He was Muslim, and this was in the months following September 11.

For those who don't remember those days well, let's bring back President Bush's Attorney General, who spoke the following words before Congress:

To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists – for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.

I've often gone back to those words, and to Greg's client. Attorney General Ashcroft all but accused millions of Americans (myself included) of supporting terrorists, and had the audacity to suggest that my faith in the Constitution was tantamount to treason. On the phone, Greg asked me a simple question, a question that dramatically changed my priorities. It led me to call Burlington, Vermont in 2002 and volunteer for a then-unheard of candidate running for President. Which, when his campaign ended in a scream in early 2004, led me to chair the local Democratic party. Soon after, many of the techies who had run the Dean campaign's web operation opened a consulting shop, and one of their first clients was a little-known State Senator in lllinois. Given my proximity to the candidate (they were in DC), they asked if I would be able to do some consulting. That resulted in me running Senator Barack Obama's campaign blog throughout his Senate race, and culminated in Robin and I hosting him at our house for a fundraiser.

About his client, and our troubled times, Greg asked me: "When our kids study this period of history in high school, what will we tell them we did?"

Every thing I've done in politics since that call can be seen through that prism. As the Bush Administration came to resemble less and less of what I thought I knew about our country, I held out hope that we were better than this. The Constitution - the bedrock on which we built this great nation - demonstrated that freedom came not from citizens who were expected to trust their government, but from a citizenry trusted by its government. Howard Dean earned my support when I learned of his early embrace of civil unions in Vermont and his vocal critiques of an administration led by evangelicals seeking to impose their interpretation of "faith" on the rest of the country. Barack Obama, running for US Senate, earned my support when he spoke out loudly against "dumb wars" and a foreign policy that acted out of fear, not reason. Whether it was running the local party, running for office, phone banking for candidates, marching in parades, fundraising, or hosting events with candidates: all of it was so that I could have an answer for my children when they looked back on these last eight years and asked, "What did you do?"

This. This is what I did. I, and millions of Americans, chose to see what could be. We saw our country for what it is: a beacon, a nation not afraid to reevaluate itself, not afraid to admit its mistakes. Most importantly, a country not afraid to hope. George Bush's America was deeply nervous: nervous that our Constitution wasn't strong enough to sustain us when we were attacked. Nervous that our fellow citizens couldn't be trusted without a wiretap to make sure they were being lawful. Nervous that if we failed to do something - anything - well, the bad guys would strike again.

No more.

When I chronicled my thoughts in the wake of September 11, I quoted FDR's famous words about what has often been called "The Greatest Generation":

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events.
To some generations much is given.
Of other generations much is expected.
This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Eight years ago, I hoped our President was up to the task: "The fear, of course, is that the country would react to this external threat by dividing itself: casting blame, pointing fingers." Sadly, that's exactly what happened. Much is being asked of our generation - even more than in 2001, as President Bush compounded those demands by isolating our country, dividing the populace and eviscerating the Constitutional foundation on which the country was founded.

Robin and I will be watching Barack Obama take his oath of office this morning - from home, with our children. We planned to be in DC to celebrate, but as we looked at the challenge of getting a 6 and 8 year-old in and out of DC in freezing weather (the 3 year-old was going to stay with the in-laws), we realized that they'd likely not enjoy the moment as much as we'd want them to. Instead, we'll be warm, in our house, watching as the 44th President is sworn in. Though part of us wishes we were in DC, this feels like the right decision. I suppose I could have told Robin that I needed to go, to witness the event first-hand. But that would ignore the reality that I wouldn't have met Barack were it not for the kids, wouldn't have worked so hard over the last six years to change the path the country was on. To miss the chance to experience Barack's inauguration with the kids would be to miss the entire point.

The words I closed with back in September of 2001 seem just as appropriate today: "more than ever, it is critical that we lock arms, stand firm, and hold our heads high. Anything less is a victory for the fear that our enemy so desperately wants us to feel."

We are one.

Yes we can.



  1. Rick -- Touche and bravo!s You've crystalized this perfectly, as usual!
    And btw...the decision to not trek with kids across the country to DC was smart, it's so much better to watch it all from your livingroom.s I left work early, replayed the events on Tivo and sat with them as they asked why the two young Obama girls didn't have their DS with them!s The moment will never be forgotten.

  2. Great stuff, Rick.
    A bit simplistic to blame the past eight years on one man, though.s He was elected into office twice (OK, once... but he came damn close the first time) by a willing populace.s This is a far more serious matter, and deserves a more sober discussion, than the misguided hate we pile on one man or one administration.
    If blaming Bush for all our ills is cathartic it is because we are all a bit to blame.s Our congress is to blame, and we are to blame.s The economic downturn is as much due to the greed on Main street as the greed on Wall street.s People buying the largest home they can afford is largely due to unchecked ambition and envy, and the financial benefits concocted by a short-sighted Congress.
    Nothing will get better if we take the easy road and demonize one person so that we can sleep better at night.

  3. This really was such an incredible, inspiring time! sHow great for you that you got to work on the "front lines" a little bit. sWe watched from our office on a widescreen computer monitor. sI couldn't take my eyes off the news and found myself wishing that my son (who is only 5) could really understand what was happening. sHe doesn't realize how cool this all is.