Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Thrill of History in the Making

I am 51 years old.

I remember President Kennedy being elected. Caroline is almost exactly my age and I felt an affinity with her as a child. And Jackie was so stunning; I knew my mother wanted not only to look like her, but to BE her. But most of all, I could sense the national excitement this new, young President brought to the adults around me. It was infectious.

And I remember President Kennedy being shot. My mother was in the bathroom crying about a bad dye job on her hair when I told her. She didn't believe me. I wish I had been wrong.

I remember the March on Washington. I was too young to be there, and I resented that. I remember Dr. King's speech, which resonated with me even as a child. I was too young to know that the moment belonged to African-Americans. No -- this special moment belonged to us all. That was what Dr. King said, wasn't it?

And I remember Robert Kennedy being shot. And then Dr. King. I remember through the lens of a child, but I knew that hope was killed on those days.

I remember Vietnam. I remember the sit ins and shootings at Kent State. I remember Abbie Hoffman, and I remember refusing to believe that he committed suicide -- not him. I remember watching African-Americans asserting their right to vote, and I remember them being sprayed by powerful fire hoses. I remember Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger standing shoulder to shoulder with Mahalia Jackson.

I had mono the summer of the Watergate hearings and I watched every minute of them. Barbara Jordan was spectacular. She was who I wanted to be.

I watched these events through the eyes of a child. Through the miracle of television, I felt connected to John, Robert, Martin, the anti-war protesters, the free lovers, the feminists -- can it be, truly, that Gloria Steinem is now my friend? -- all of those Americans who pushed us to become more, better, smarter, and more loving to one another. I remember many dinner conversations in which I tried to convert my father from a Republican to a lefty -- and I did!

During the bad years -- the Nixon years, the Reagan years (I'm still waiting for the trickle to trickle down to me), the first Bush years, even the Carter years -- I yearned for inspirational leaders to carry us into the next century, leaders who would make my heart sing.

When Bill Clinton took office, I had real hope, and he was a very good President in many ways. But then came Monica-gate, and although he was still on the "right side" of the issues that matter most to me, I knew he could never go down in history as the great President he meant to be. His shortcomings made it impossible to feel proud of him, despite his many strengths.

Then came the second Bush, and with him a deep, eight-year despair. He has a brother with the same disease I have, but you would never know it based on his policies. He was insulated. He never heard us at all, never listened, didn't want to know. Those who disagreed with him were his enemies. There was no discourse; only discord.

I watched the war in Iraq drag on as Bin Laden got away. I watched this Republican President create a deficit that would be insurmountable even if our economy hadn't fallen apart. And then I lost over one-third of the too-small nest egg I have been nurturing in the hope that I can retire one day. I have felt powerless for so long.

And since I began my work on behalf of patients with chronic illnesses, I saw, every day, over and over, how horribly America treats its most vulnerable. Being sick in America is very difficult.

Two years ago, Barack Obama was a spoiler. I was a Hillary fan. It was time for a woman. It was time for a smart leader. It was her time.

And then it wasn't.

And I'm not sorry.

Barack Obama has more than won me over. He has shown a discipline -- "no drama Obama" -- that has been missing from politics and politicians for too long. He is brilliant. He has surrounded himself with the best and the brightest knowing that none of them is smarter than he; he is not afraid to listen to contrasting views, to allow the policy wonks to duke it out verbally so that all of the ramifications of an idea are vetted and voiced, because he knows that out of disagreement, the right answers will emerge and he will know them when he sees them. He is a stunningly brilliant man with a stunningly open heart that knows that America is at its greatest when we all -- including us sickos -- stand together, nurture each other, and celebrate our common bonds.

This young man, this African-American man, has become my hope. My heart soars at the thought of today's swearing in. The long darkness is over. There will be light now. He will lead us towards it; we need only follow. I believe in Barack Obama.

And so today I choke back tears at the thought of what his swearing in means. It means so much to African-Americans who need to know that they can be anything they want to be. But it means that for all of us, too. One needn't be African-American to know that, for Barack Obama, we all belong, we all can achieve, we are all needed, we are all wanted, we are all accepted. We are free. And we are one.

Today picks up where my childhood hope left off, as if all of the wars and discord and oppression can be set aside and we can, once again, hope.

As a child, I knew that President Kennedy inspired the adults around me, and I knew that, when he was killed, hopes were dashed and we entered nearly 40 years of mourning. We have not celebrated hope for that long.

Today I am an adult. I will watch President Obama being sworn in as an adult. And I will feel the same hope exploding in my chest as I think the adults felt when they looked at President Kennedy.

It has been too long since we've had a leader who inspired us. Thank goodness, our long national wait is over. Jennifer

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