Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Address Shows that Barack Obama is Worthy of the Number 44

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

As Dianne Feinstein introduced Barack Obama as the 44th president, and as Obama noted in his inauguration address (you can read the full text here) that he was the 44th person to take the oath of office, it struck me that 44 is about as apt a number for the Obama presidency as you could find.

Why? Well, as a baseball fanatic, I relate most numbers to the sport. Sure, 42, worn by Jackie Robinson, the man who broke Major League Baseball's racial barrier, on the surface, would seem to be the most appropriate number for Obama. But for someone of my generation (much to my chagrin, I am not old enough to have seen Robinson play), the number 44 carries more emotional resonance.

On April 8, 1974, I sat in my living room with my parents and watched as Henry Aaron, wearing uniform number 44, hit a home run to break Babe Ruth's long-standing career home run record. I, a seven-year-old devoted to baseball, looked on, mesmerized. As Aaron rounded second base, two fans ran up behind him. (You can watch the home run at the end of this video.) My parents gasped, but the men innocently patted Aaron on the back, congratulating him. I asked my parents why they were worried, and they nervously explained to me that some bad people wanted to hurt Aaron because they didn't want a black person to break Ruth's record. I remember being confused and upset. To my mind, why would anyone want to hurt the great Henry Aaron? He was a hero! It was one of my first lessons in racism.

Three years later, Reggie Jackson would join my team, the New York Yankees, and wear uniform number 44. Jackson spent most of the season at odds with teammate Thurman Munson, manager Billy Martin and owner George Steinbrenner, but I thought he was a great player, and he quickly became my favorite Yankee. Which was why I was thrilled when I sat in Yankee Stadium on October 18, 1977 and watched Jackson hit three home runs (on three consecutive pitches) in Game 6 of the World Series to power the Yankees to victory over the Dodgers and their first World Series title in my young lifetime (and first since 1962).

While baseball might seem trivial on such an important day, I couldn't help making the connection. Barack Obama, the 44th president, is a pioneer, much like Aaron, who started his career in the Negro Leagues. And his skill and intelligence, on display in his inaugural address, showed the superstar abilities of Aaron and Jackson. I, like many Americans, have hope that Obama is capable of successfully leading the country back, much like Jackson did for the Yankees in 1977.

The historic nature of Obama's election has been well-chronicled, and rightfully so. The elevation of an African American to the presidency, coming against the backdrop of hundreds of years of racism and oppression of blacks in this country, marks a powerful moment, one filled with symbolic and actual meaning. Watching Obama stand on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, taking the oath of office, inspired a sense of pride in my country that has been lacking for the eight years of the Bush administration. After all, we are told that Europeans are more progressive than we are, and yet the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Italy have never elected a black leader, nor have nearly every other country on the continent.

But as great as it was to watch an African American man take the oath using Abraham Lincoln's bible, I was even more moved listening to Obama's inauguration address, because it showed that after eight years of the Bush presidency, we finally have a worthy leader. Sure, I had felt throughout the campaign that Obama was the best man for the job, a leader of intelligence and talent. But seeing him on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20 really hammered the idea home. This was real. Obama was the president. And I was proud, and it went far beyond his race.

In the summer of 2004, I spent three months living in Helsinki, Finland. By my second week there, I realized that when meeting new people, I had to change my introduction from, "Hi, my name is Mitchell," to, "Hi, my name is Mitchell and I didn't vote for him." Bush's absolute contempt for government and the constitution, as well as the rest of the world, tarnished what it meant to be an American. (Keith Olbermann did a great job summarizing the failures of the Bush administration in this segment of Countdown last week.) With Obama taking office, the job of restoring the shine of being an American is off to a rousing start.

The entire speech was brilliant, and many lines will be held up for praise. But to me, personally, here were some moments that jumped out as I watched, signalling that a new, better era had begun:

- "On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord." One of the legacies of the Bush administration will be its use of fear to ram through policies that threatened our democracy. Those days have ended, at least for the next four years.

- "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less." And later, "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task." We have become a nation of shortcuts. This sense of entitlement has been pervasive, infecting everything from television and movies to politics. It was satisfying to here a leader come out and say that things have to change, that to solve the myriad problems facing the nation, we, as citizens, have to start doing the right thing, not necessarily the easy thing.

- "As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations." Music to my ears, more pleasing than the joyous vocals of Aretha Franklin singing "America." Translation: No more using terrorism as an excuse to torture. No more using terrorism as an excuse to take away the rights of American citizens (and non-citizens, too). No more using terrorism as a premise to destroy the ideals of the American democracy. And no more using terrorism as a political ploy.

- "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers." And later, "We will restore science to its rightful place..." After eight years of Bush injecting religion into every aspect of his administration, both expected (stem-cell research) and unexpected (150 graduates of Pat Robertson's low-ranked Regent University School of Law getting jobs at the Justice Department because they had the "right" religious beliefs), the fact that a president would legitimize the position of non-belief and extol the virtues of science was welcomed.

No matter how you slice it, today was a great day for the United States. The problems we face are daunting, both in number and depth, so much so that they may be beyond any president to solve. But it's nice to know that the guy in the batter's box taking his hacks to try and fix them is worthy of the number 44. I'm sure Hank Aaron and Reggie Jackson would agree.