I’ve just returned from Montreal, speaking at a press conference of the agency, the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime on whose board I once sat, and for a year chaired. Was beautiful: a European city, just over our border, brisk cold with light powdery snow falling on a brightly lit city full of bustling pedestrians bundled against the cold.
But warm, so warm. A welcome to Obama as if he were theirs. The staff, all of them, spoke excitedly of where they were, “at that time of the swearing in,” and of staying up into the night watching, exulting in the balls, and knowing, already, what he had done his first two days in office. At the cocktail party, I had a wonderful chat with a group of interns, many PhD students from across the world, who all feel a new dimension, really validation, of their work. Said one young Canadian woman, “I have to confess, I am a little bit jealous. We need an Obama here. Can you lend him to us for a while?” My response: “I understand what you’re saying, and know your yearning, but know that we paid quite a price for him: eight years of George Bush. Know also that you inspired us many years back with your brilliant, brave and charming Pierre Elliot Trudeau who, after Kenndy’s death dashed our spirits, helped to revive them.”
Everybody who refers to Obama seems to brighten and walk a little taller.
Tuesday began ever-so-early for us—my Godson Mike from Los Angeles with his 8-year-old Molly and a dear friend and colleague from Indianapolis– with a packed 6:00 a.m. metro ride into the city, normally 30 minutes or so, this day about 90 with a limping train that loaded and off-loaded with jammed doors; A metro platform and stairs and escalator so packed that from platform to surface, normally a one minute journey, took more than an hour, and our ticketed site, the now infamous “Purple Zone,” which merited a column in the NY Times because of faulty metal detectors and the crush of people, admitted only a dribble, meaning that I, after almost six hours of riding, walking and standing, watched it on TV with a cheering crowd of mayors and city counselors at the Natl League of Cities reception on Pennsylvania Avenue.
And yet, in spite of all, the spirit was amazing. People shared food and drink and seats on the metro. People from different parts of America became brothers and sisters. There was no anger. 1.8 million people together on the mall, and not one, repeat, not one reported crime. People from across the nation and world, not hearing the cheap and dichotomous word of fear, of “us/them,” of an arrogant unilateralism, but of the open hand, summoning us to our better angels, an invitation to each of us to help shoulder the burdens of others. In the streets, a mad, a loving, teary scene, as if Breugel had painted a joyous tumult.
One reflects that had we elected a Democrat in 2004, let’s say a Kerry or Gore, we may have gotten something marginally better, but we probably would not have been, given Bush’s second four years, driven to the depths of our despair, just how lost we were, how bankrupt fiscally and morally we had become, and thus confronting what we really needed. Had an average, tepid Democrat won, we probably would not have gotten the gift of Obama.
The speech was odd and striking for a Democrat. Yes, a long list of the policy necessities in the areas of health, education, the environment, the economy, but then a message summoning us to responsibility, to, in the words of Chicago Theological Seminary’s Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, “grow up.” It was, in a way, a stern and bracing speech, reminding us how far we had strayed. Yes, we got policy but we got something deeper: the best of ourselves back. Policies don’t get us up in the morning. Our core values do.
Yes, to grow up, in the words of Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, which Obama, amazingly, quoted: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways…” We were summoned not by soaring rhetoric, but called back to solid values, values “forgotten in the years of greed on Wall Street and the bullying practices of our foreign policy.” (again Thistlewiate). We were called not to something new, but something (s) old: “…honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.”
The Pauline text continues: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully…” And thus a message of humility, not of brutal certainty, of foreign policy arrogance and disrespect for the rule of law, that we should go forward with unclenched fist and open mind.
An embrace to all as we step into a new, a seismically new, era.