More than the hostages have been freed in Iran. America has been liberated, too -- freed of pent-up feelings of rage and helplessness, of weariness and despair, of hopes suddenly rising and cruelly being dashed.
The last long act in this interminable drama and endless frustration was in keeping with the entire extraordinary episode. Once more, Americans were held emotionally in thrall as they awaited the final release. Once more, that agonizing wait turned into more hours of delay and disappointment. But, at last, there was a happy ending.
Of the hostage saga it now can be said that it ended as it began: with dramatic news bulletins followed by numbing hours of uncertainty, suspense and anxiety still to be endured by Americans everywhere before it was really over. When the wheels finally went up on that plane lifting off from Tehran, producing a collective sigh of relief across the country, they brought to a close an epic tale of an entire nation literally and figuratively held captive alongside fellow citizens in a far-off land Americans barely knew existed before Nov. 4, 1979 -- a date that will live in memory, if not certainly in history.
No event in modern times preoccupied the nation so long and so personally; none ever bred such national frustration. Short of our wars and perhaps the Watergate scandal, the ordeal of the hostages became the single most consuming episode in American history.
It dominated our news, defined our politics, determined our presidency, diverted our attention from critical problems at home and abroad. It swept aside such dramatic worldwide events as the ominous march of the Soviets into Afghanistan or the Poles' brave struggle for freedom, and it affected our national psyche in ways both profound and unfathomable.
To a country supposedly divided politically, the hostages became the unifying element. To a generation thought to be too disinclined to fight, the hostages became a rallying cry for action. To a society said to be too sophisticated to heed old exhortations about national honor, the hostages brought a surge of patriotism unmatched since the attack on Pearl Harbor 40 years ago.
The hostages took hold of American emotions so powerfully for another special reason -- television. Long after the historians, novelists and playwrights have had their say, the hostage story likely will be remember as our first long-run, real-life television drama.
It was television that enabled us to identify so personally with those 52 Americans; that made us feel they and their families were part of our own lives; that permitted us to share in their suffering; that let us see doctors examining them before they boarded their flights to freedom and gauge how their wives, mothers and fathers reacted to the same scenes; that kept us all riveted to our TV screens as the drama drew to a close amid the pomp of an inauguration. And it was television that figured at the center of an event that quite possibly will have lasting international implications.
In an age of worldwide terrorism, this example of captives being seized and used as pawns in international struggles, live and in color via global electronic hookups, promises to have set a historic precedent.
Through the intense focus of television, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, the hostages assumed a critical role in national and world affairs. In time, the taking of the hostages symbolized a period of national soul-searching about the country's purpose and direction and its perceived departures from past days of glory. Coming after the bitterness of defeat in Vietnam, the failure to protect and then to free our embassy personnel in Iran made people wonder whether we had become the Gulliver of the age, an important giant incapable of exercising our power to meet the impudent challenge of a primitive society.
To Americans, Iran came to represent an unparalled test of national will and pride. Even the ending of this drama held all-too-familiar elements of frustration.
With appropriate irony, the long-awaited denouement came simultaneously with the most significant shift of presidential power in a decade and, perhaps, in generations. But, as has happened so often for 14 1/2 long months, presidential actions were eclipsed by still more disappointing developments in Iran.
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, whose fate it had been to preside over the nation's destiny during the Iranian crisis, was denied the opportunity to greet the freed hostages -- or even with certainty to announce their release -- while still serving as chief executive.
After waiting anxiously for hours Monday to board a presidential plane and meet the returning Americans in West Germany, Carter was forced to cancel his trip. Time had run out; there were not enough hours left in his presidency to permit him to travel to Germany and be back in time to attend his successor's inauguration in Washington.
Even that trip would have been futile, as the time of expected release lengthened into yet another agonizing 36 hours of waiting.
Ronald Reagan, as he became the 40th president, saw Iran affect his own moment in history. His inauguration was overshadowed by the continuing hostage story. And from Iran came the kind of report that has infuriated all Americans throughout the hostage seizure.
The Iranian negotiator was quoted as saying: "We managed to rub the nose of the biggest superpower in the world in the dust."
With such words ringing in their ears, and with such new feelings of frustration to combat as the rumors of last-second problems were reported through the news media, Americans had to confront the belief that the Iranians wanted to extract one final moment of humiliation from them. But no amount of last-minute anguish could extinguish the glow that came from the news that they had been released.
From the beginning, the hostage story has been marked by a curious cycle of events that seemed almost predestined in their timing. The Americans were captured exactly one year to the day before the 1980 presidential election; all of American politics, in the longest campaign year of our history, subsequently revolved around that event.
Carter's fortunes rose and the fell with them. In the flash of anger that swept the country after their seizure, the president became the personification of the nation's hopes and fears. The reversal of his popularity from low to high, coming in the wake of spontaneous mass demonstrations showing support for the hostages, was the most dramatic in the history of U.S. public opinion polling. It guaranteed his renomination -- and, for a period, it seemed his reelection. But by the time Election Day arrived, when the hostages were being dangled before the eyes of Americans like marionettes on a puppeteer's string and hopes for their liberation were crushed, he was voted out of office in a wave of protest.
Now the inauguration, a moment signaling fresh hopes for a better day after disappointments and failures of the past, was overtaken by the latest turns in the hostage story. For Americans, that day of national celebration began, as usual, with a fanfare of patrotic music over radio and television. But this time the old songs had a new meaning.
One Washington resident found himself suddenly choked with emotion while driving toward the inaugural ceremonies yesterday morning. News of the hostages' impending release was followed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "America" and ending with the familiar refrain, From ev-'ry mountain side, let free-dom ring. Never had those words seemed more appropriate.