I recall the illustrations of Gulliver’s Travels. They picture the massive body of Gulliver on the beach with swarms of Lilliputians tacking their spindly ropes to miniature stakes. Standing on the Capital mall last week, I felt as if the dormant body of American patriotism stirred, and with the movement of a single flank snapped the ropes of cynicism. If you were among those on the mall, the inauguration was an experience of awakening. It was an early dawn awakening of democracy to walk shoulder to shoulder (literally) with such a mass of diverse Americans and international guests who had also come from Kenya, France, England, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Italy…and that was just on our subway car. There were moments of spontaneous singing as 5,000 of us walked in baby-step fashion for over an hour in the subway tunnels towards the exit.
Pressed on all sides by humanity, the inaugural crowd was congenial and purposeful. To make the effort of distance, cold, inconvenience, perseverance, and expense was to say, “I know it will be hard.” We know the truth of “Yes we can.” It is the truth that no one can do it for us. The reference in Obama’s speech to the troops at Valley Forge was heard by the shivering masses on the mall much differently than by those in homes or offices. We were standing for 5 hours in the 20 degree weather, dusty field, stomping our frozen feet to keep warm. By the time he restated the lines of George Washington, two million of us not only heard it, we felt it. We were, in an instant of slight imagination, the troops huddling before General Washington, facing near defeat of the revolution – we heard the appeal to the enduring values of faith and virtue. Our presence was a prelude to the willingness to sacrifice for our country.
We gather in crowds as Americans, mostly for family transitions, entertainment, concerts and sports events. So it has been rare, but perhaps a renewing ritual, to join a pilgrimage for our country. This year we have been witnesses to that renewal. There are millions who stood in primary caucus lines through spring and summer nights. There are millions who stood and circled the block for hours on election day. We are a nation weary of being mere spectators. So the inaugural mall was a convergence reflecting these smaller, but potent, expressions. These regional phenomena came together as one – like two million slivers of metal filings drawn to a magnet. The magnet was not Obama; the magnet is what Obama is pointing to in the American soul. Love of country, pride of ideals and commitment to leadership for the good of humankind were thawed out from the cold storage of message makers, and there was a rebirth of patriotism in the faces and hearts of millions of inaugural pilgrims yesterday.
One more picture: on our subway car a young family of two parents, two young children. The eight year old daughter in pink parka and boots points to a map and asks where they are going. The Dad points to the green rectangle and says “to the mall.” To her quizzical look he quickly replies, “It’s not a shopping mall. It is place where our nation has monuments to its greatest accomplishments and most important people.” What if, for eight year olds “the mall” means this?
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