Celebrating the New America at the Inauguration

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday January 24, 2013 - 11:48:00 AM

I’m usually one of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll’s most fervent admirers, but this time he’s gotten it really wrong. Last week he filed a column complaining about preparations for the Inauguration, telling us that “I was happy to see that the president's Inauguration committee is falling short of its $50 million fundraising goal. Not that I wish the president ill - he should live long and prosper - but because I don't much care for glitzy governmental parties when the country is in bad shape.”

He went on to opine that the $50 million which the Inauguration committee hoped to raise from donors could be better spent:

“$50 million is a lot of money, particularly when being raised from donors who just a few months ago gave generously, more than generously, to the Obama re-election campaign. Some of them feel they have already bought a place in the inaugural.

“But think what $50 million could do elsewhere. Think of it given to the city of Oakland to upgrade its police services. Wouldn't that be swell? The money could certainly help some of the victims of Superstorm Sandy. It might do all sorts of things, but it isn't doing any of them.”

Well, from an economic perspective, Jon ought to be reading our colleague Paul Krugman more closely before he decides that spending money on festivities in a recession is a bad idea.

After all, who gets most of the money spent on a big shindig like this? Waitresses and taxi drivers and garbage collectors and, yes, D.C. police officers and others near the bottom of the pay scale (now euphemistically called the middle class, but really the working class). It’s stimulus money, just what the economy needs, being put right into the stream of commerce where it will be spent by the recipients to buy basic goods and services and will thus aid economic recovery. 

And the loot is being squeezed out of fat cats who, he thinks, might be asked to cough up $100,000 for a photo op—but what’s wrong with that? Transfer of wealth from the very rich to the considerably less rich: all to the good. It’s money not languishing in Swiss banks. 

Yes, there are other needs in this country, many, but does Jon really think that the same amount could be wrung from major national donors to presidential campaigns if it were earmarked for the Oakland police? (Much as those of us who live in the East Bay might wish it could be…) 

And there’s the public value of civic ritual to be considered. 

As I remember, Jon Carroll is a lapsed son of one of the Calvinistic branches of one of the desert religions, a branch that prided itself in the old days on pulling down statues and simplifying worship. That’s an important thread in the civic tapestry, going all the way back to the New England Puritans, but over our more than two centuries in this country we’ve come to appreciate the glitter of the occasional gold strand as well. 

To my eye, nothing could have been more beautiful than the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir in all their multicolored glory (and their singing was pretty good too.) And speaking of eyes, no one with any sense of history could be dry-eyed seeing the iconic tableau of our Black-and-White president standing up to be sworn in with his African-American family at his side and civil rights hero John Lewis hovering in the background like some benevolent saint in a Renaissance painting. 

In all my days taking part in the civil rights movement, I never hoped to see this day before I died—I confess to shedding a few tears myself on Monday. Surprisingly, this second Inauguration seemed even moving than the first one, which felt like it might be a fluke, an aberration before America got back to business as usual. 

Washington, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, another African American civil rights veteran, generously acknowledged in a radio interview what Barack Obama’s presidency means for some of us who have struggled most of our adult lives to see this picture:
“I think there's a pride white Americans feel in themselves that they did it. They know that African-Americans could not have done it by themselves. And they feel that they have shed some of the racism that was their legacy as white people.” 

Our own family tree has in it both abolitionists and slaveholders. My descendants will have ancestors not only from Europe but also Africa and Asia. It’s about time we shed our legacy of racism, and it looks we’re getting there. 

As I type this, I’m listening on KALW to sax player Joshua [Shedroff] Redman, son of an African-American musician, lucky to have been raised in Berkeley by a Jewish mother. Like President Obama, he’s part of the new generation of Americans who inherit the richness of many cultures. The inaugural ceremonies were a sacramental celebration of this unprecedented transformation of our society. 

Some of my comrades on the whiny left persist in dwelling on the cup half-empty instead of sipping a bit of the sweet wine of success. Yes, President Obama has not yet done everything he ought to, not accomplished everything we’d like him to, but with our support he’s now got four more years to try. He preached a mighty fine sermon from his bully pulpit on Monday, which should be a harbinger of accomplishments to come. 

Critics grumble that he simply pointed the way, without specifying exactly the steps he plans to take to get there. They might remember a cherished American legend, Lewis and Clark’s pathfinding exploration of the West, which tradition says could not have been accomplished without the help of Sacajawea, the Native woman taken as an exemplar by the women’s suffrage movement, whose image now decorates the dollar coin. 

The President has set our goals before us—now it’s time to give him some firm guidance about how he might reach them. 

P.S. Judging by his latest column, Jon seems to have approved of the Inauguration after all, though he doesn’t tell us if he liked Michelle’s outfits.