Today, for the tenth ten time of my life, a new president will take the oath of office.
I can tell the story of my life by recounting the various presidents I have known: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush; and, today, Obama.
Like most Americans, I have taken pride in the peaceful way we transfer our highest office, sometimes between bitter opponents. So far, we have always passed the baton with dignity and with a sense of celebration. As President Kennedy once reminded us, an inauguration is not the victory of a man. It is not even the victory of a party; it is a “celebration of freedom.”
Ten times now, I have witnessed this celebration of freedom.
I remember the day Johnson took his oath on a Dallas airfield. The people around me were weeping, still in grief for the President he had replaced. The transition was hardly noticed because we were so stunned. Still, the presidency survived and the ship of state sailed on.
Several times, I heard an inaugural speech on foreign soil. I heard Nixon’s farewell speech through a Portuguese interpreter, for once wishing I could hush the tones of what may be the world’s most beautiful language in order to hear the relatively harsh tones of my own. The leader of my country was surrendering his office and I wanted to hear the same words, in the same language, that my fellow citizens far away in North America were hearing. When I heard the new president take his oath of office, I was still irritated that I had to hear it through a Brazilian interpreter. Still, I joined, in the best way I knew how, my countrymen’s celebration of freedom.
Many years later, I was living in Montréal when Reagan came to visit Prime Minister Trudeau. It was his first state visit. I was proud when he gave a part of his greeting to the Canadian people in French. The interpreters, always attentive to their erudite and multilingual prime minister, scrambled to react to the unexpected utterances of our new American leader. I smiled and knew that this new president would do well.
Whether here or aboard, the beginning and ending of each presidential administration has marked the seasons of my life.
Eisenhower was president until I was eight years old. I remember seeing him only once. He was on an oval-shaped television screen in the house of my mother’s friend. I was fascinated by the television. Few people had one in those days. However, its owner stopped to ask, “Do you know who that is? It’s the president, Mr. Eisenhower!” So I looked more intently at the primitive television set.
For some reason, her remark and my vision of the president on that television screen got etched into my memory. Other than that, I hardly recall the presidency of the great Second World War general. I respect him; I just don’t personally remember him.
Kennedy was the first president I really remember. When he took office, I was in the first grade. Our young president fascinated us most West Virginians. We memorized passages from his speeches and collected pictures of him and his family.
The violent ending of his presidency (and our romantic attachment with his administration) came on a cold November day when I was in the third grade. The adults had fear in their eyes that day. That made me afraid too. I had no idea that the violence and fear would continue in our country until the end of that decade.
During the Johnson administration, I discovered girls. Other, more important things occurred during his years in office – the civil rights act, the war on poverty, Viet Nam – to name but a few; but I was a teenager. World events merely formed a backdrop against which my unfolding life was taking shape!
By the time Nixon took office, my family was preparing to move to South America. Walking through the streets in Quito, I sometimes saw our president’s name written on the walls with a swastika, where there should have been an “x.” I didn’t understand why the president was so despised. Sometimes it felt personal. Most of the time, I just went on with life as an immigrant teenager, getting ready to become an adult.
As the Nixon years continued, I increasingly felt caught between cultures and languages. I was an American but had also become a member of a global community. I wanted to speak many languages and understand the customs of the world’s peoples. However, many of my countrymen were drawing back from intimate interaction with the world’s cultures. I first experienced what would become a life-long issue: the sense of patriotism mixed with an appreciation and respect for other cultures and languages. This tension would sometimes alarm those Americans who are uninterested in the richness of the world’s cultures. Then and now, this disinterest in the opinions and contributions of others would strike me as a false and even putrid form of patriotism. I learned to dislike it then and I dislike it still.
I married an American girl, from Appalachia, like me. We moved to South America and traveled around the continent. We were still newlyweds; spending a month in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil the day Gerald Ford took office.
When our daughter Talitha was born, Jimmy Carter was president. Trish and I were visiting Chicago, taking Lamaze classes to prepare for her arrival. On the way out of the class, we noticed how a bright star flanked the crescent moon. We shivered at the sight. That same day, the president had met with Prime minister Began, Chairman Arafat and President Sadat at Camp David. What did that sign mean? We still talk about it sometimes.
When our second daughter, Tiffany was born, Ronald Reagan was president. During his term of office, we moved to the United States, finally settling in Nashville. We raised our children during his administration and that of his successor, George Herbert Walker Bush. It was a good season. I became more deeply acquainted with the culture of Middle America and marveled at the richness of our national heritage.
The first Bush presidency maintained the culture and atmosphere of the Reagan years, for the most part. However, things kept changing. The Berlin Wall came down. My children couldn’t understand why I wept at the reports from Germany. The final vestiges of the Second World War were just swept away as people in Leipzig drove to Bonn for the first time in fifty years. The Russians pulled down the hammer and the sickle for the last time. Communism was finally dead everywhere but at Harvard, Yale and Berkley.
Clinton became the first Baby Boomer president. Someone from my own generation was president of the United States. Imagine that! The times really were a changin’.
Our family moved to Phoenix. We discovered the Western part of our nation. We ate fish tacos and toured Native American towns more than a thousand years old.
Our children grew up.
Our children got married.
George W. Bush became president and almost immediately, the world changed again. Towers came down in New York. Air traffic ceased for the first time in a hundred years. We were at war. My life entered a severe turbulence in Phoenix that mirrored the turbulence of the world. We had a grandchild. Then another. Trish had a brain aneurism. We moved back to Nashville. We had another grandchild. Trish slowly recovered. Trish and I experienced together the deepest joy of our lives: having lived long enough to know and to love our grandchildren.
Today, Mr. Bush will go back to Texas and we will enter a new season of life. We wish him well. His was a difficult and taxing season. For the moment, many Americans associate, perhaps unfairly, the sorrows of this season with his name and with his face. Perhaps the future will look kinder upon him. In any case, the moment has shifted to a new season.
A young man is taking his oath of office today. He never saw President Eisenhower on an oval-shaped screen. He never took a drink from a water fountain set aside for people of his race. He neither served in Vietnam nor dodged the draft. He doesn’t remember race riots. He is a new face, a very new face.
Today, Mr. Obama will become the President of the United States.
He is younger than I am -- by a decade. That’s new for me! He is an African-American. That is also new! As is true of all new presidents, we are not yet sure what he will be like or what the season he represents holds for us. We only know that we have once again transferred our highest office peacefully and with great celebration. Most of us, even those who did not vote for him, wish him well. We are all proud that our nation has proven to the world that any citizen can become president. We have proven once again that ours is a nation with many faults but it remains a land of great opportunity and possesses a nearly unbelievable ability to renew itself.
May God give President Obama the wisdom and the courage to be a righteous man. He inherits what is in many ways a damaged nation. It is dangerously unsure of its values and alarmingly unstable. But we have been here before. Each time we have been granted a new season because a new leader found a way to call us back to greatness.
On this tenth occasion of a presidential transition in my lifetime, it is my hope that this new president will be such a leader. May this new season be a good one that my grandchildren will remember fondly.