Words Made Flesh

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In the end, the history eclipsed everything.

Had yesterday's ceremony been merely an inauguration in a time of national crisis, one in which the president signaled fundamental departures in the nation's conduct of domestic and foreign affairs, those departures would have been the big news. They are big news; they are huge. But they were not the main story. Not today.

For the line in Barack Obama's inaugural address that rocked the nation back on its heels, the line that brought the shock of recognition to the moment, was the president's assertion that by America's living up to our founding creed, "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

That was the history, and everybody knew it. That is what brought the tears.

The speech itself had something of a "last shall be first" air. More than any inaugural address I can think of, it encapsulated the story of America's working class. Obama celebrated "men and women obscure in their labor" who "toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth."

Such invocations served several distinct but overlapping purposes. They were, first, part of a broader tableau of inclusivity that Obama painted, a nation whose religious census includes "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers."

Second, they were an affirmation of the value of work, which, in turn, provided the moral basis for the redistributive economics that was one of the two fundamental departures from past policies that Obama championed in his speech. "The market can spin out of control," he told us, referring not merely to the current meltdown but also to the ways in which an uncontrolled market can and has damaged the great middle class. "The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous," he said. "The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity but because it is the surest route to our common good."

We measure the merit of government, he added, not by how wide a berth it gives the market but by "whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified."

With those words, the age of Reagan was ceremoniously but unambiguously interred. For 30 years, the widely shared prosperity created and then enjoyed by the Greatest Generation has been eroding. Obama's speech was the first presidential inaugural to address the narrowing of American prosperity and to announce the intention to broaden it again.

The age of Bush was also ended, more abruptly, in the very first sentence that concerned foreign and defense policy. "As for our common defense," Obama said, "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Moments later, he added, "Power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please."

With that, the neoconservative perversion of American ideals -- and American security -- was flushed to its reward, and a new doctrine, at once more idealistic and realistic than neoconservatism ever was, was articulated by our articulate new president.

Yet for all that the nation is in crisis, and for all that these two reversals of course are of great immediate and historic significance, they are not what brought the tears, the intake of breath, the headshaking disbelief at what was unfolding on the steps of the Capitol.

America's defining challenge has always been to take seriously the assertion of human equality in our founding document, though many of our Founders were themselves unable to broaden their definition of humanity to include the people whose unpaid work was the basis of their own well-being. The battle to conform American realities to American ideals has been the central narrative of American history. Yesterday, everyone recognized that the story was advancing by chapters, or maybe volumes, before our eyes.

Obama used the moment to affirm his belief that "the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself."

Good words, but what made yesterday so astounding was that the words, by the decision of the American people in voting booths assembled, were made flesh.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company