'Of and by the people' - literally

Obama calls Tuesday's historic inaugeration a 'celebration of American renewal.'

obama lincoln memorial 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama lincoln memorial 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
This is how bad my view was: I had to borrow the binoculars of the stranger standing behind me, then bend and lean and balance, just to see the Jumbotron. That's the price of being 15 minutes late to a star-studded pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, one which 400,000 people were estimated to have attended, with America's biggest singers, actors and sports heros, two days before the guest of honor, Barack Obama, was to be sworn in as the country's first African-American president. But if I didn't have a clear shot of Stevie Wonder tapping out "Higher Ground" or John Mellancamp playing "Pink Houses," I did get a close-up of other people - the Indian woman next to me singing along to Garth Brooks's rendition of "American Pie"; the black, white and Asian threesome swaying arm-in-arm to "This Land is Your Land"; the middle-aged gentlemen over my shoulder, reciting along with Tom Hanks the rousing words of the Gettysburg Address, "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Here I was, literally of and by the people. And there was one figure in front I could see quite clearly - the man who had the best seat in the house, who penned those immortal words - Lincoln himself. His towering alabaster frame overlooked what he had saved and restored, as crowds stretched out over the reflecting pool all the way up the mall toward the Capitol where Tuesday's inauguration will take place. When Obama took the stage, he paid homage to this location. "Behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible," he noted, as he welcomed the audience to "this celebration of American renewal." "What gives me hope is what I see when I look out across this mall. For in these monuments are chiseled those unlikely stories that affirm our unyielding faith, a faith that anything is possible in America," he told the cheering crowd. "Rising before us stands a memorial to a man who led a small band of farmers and shopkeepers in revolution against the army of an empire, all for the sake of an idea," he said of the Washington Monument. "On the ground below is a tribute to a generation that withstood war and depression, men and women like my grandparents who toiled on bomber assembly lines and marched across Europe to free the world from tyranny's grasp." And he paid particular tribute to the man, Martin Luther King, Jr., who had once stood where he stood, urging a nation to change and heal, whose birth would be celebrated Monday, a day before Obama would take his path-breaking place as president. "Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character's content." Yet Obama also alluded to the challenges ahead, tempering the festive air in an acknowledgement that not all was well. "Our nation is at war. Our economy is in crisis. Millions of Americans are losing their jobs and their homes," he noted. "They are anxious and uncertain about the future - about whether this generation of Americans will be able to pass on what's best about this country to our children and their children." And beyond all the immediate woes were the long-term ones. Though the concert was titled "We Are One," a slightly modified translation of the national motto, "E Pluribus Unum," in actuality we still have a way to go. There remains a steep road to racial reconciliation. And there are divisions in the wider world, not least of them the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so acute that it was interjected into the program by U2 rocker Bono. Though political statements were nearly absent from the two-hour event, Bono made a slight departure when he cut out from his hit song "Pride," which honors the memory of MLK, to declare that his vision was "not just an American dream" but also "an Irish dream, a European dream, an African dream, Israeli dream - and also a Palestinian dream!" With his emphasis on the last party, the crowd gave a small cheer. Though it might have been a bid for reconciliation, it served to reinforce the divisiveness of the issue, at least for Jews in the crowd. "Right now it's kind of hard to be pro-Israel," said Jocelyn Krieger after hearing the reception to Bono's remarks about Palestinians. "All these people started cheering and I feel a little awkward right now." It was a reminder of the reality still at hand, the wounds that still hurt, the fact that saying we are one is not quite enough to make it so. But it's still nice to have a moment to dream an American dream. Bono himself, whose larger point was the hope that conflict could be overcome, told the crowd that this Tuesday MLK's dream would come to pass. But Samuel L. Jackson, who introduced U2, said that time was already here. "His dream is being realized by all of us being here today." He quoted King's own take on his 1963 March on Washington: "In its entire glittering history, Washington had never seen a spectacle of the size and grandeur that assembled there. Among the 250,000 people who journeyed that day to the capital, there were many dignitaries and celebrities. But the stirring emotion came from the mass of ordinary people, who stood in majestic dignity as witnesses to their single-minded determination to achieve democracy in their time." Those words were echoed by the rappers who on Sunday shared the stage with country singers, the military men who followed peace activists, the leading actors who quoted Republican and Democratic presidents stressing the same themes of equality, opportunity and fellowship. In the tears it provoked, Sunday's concert offered Americans a group therapy session, where they could remember where their country came from, what it still represents and where it wants to go. The concert closed with two songs that celebrate the land that joins and shelters all Americans, that talks about common bonds and natural bounty and brotherhood and grace. The 89-year-old folk legend Pete Seeger, picking at his banjo and shouting out lines so the crowd could sing along, was joined by the iconic rocker Bruce Springsteen for an extended version of "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land," after which the youthful and spirited Beyonce closed the show with the country's unofficial anthem, "America the Beautiful." From where I stood, I did see America the beautiful, with the help of a stranger who offered to share his binoculars.