Tuesday, January 20, 2009
After watching the Inauguration, I drove to the Friends of the Library Book Bay, where I had left my book list yesterday. This is a thirty-five page document, arranged by genre, of every book I own so that I won't duplicate them on my frequent forays into book stores.
My favorite classical music station, KDFC, offered tickets to a chamber music concert if I could be the tenth caller and correctly identify the poet who read at the 1961 Inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
It was the first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote. No previous Inaugural had featured a poet. This was believed to be the influence of our new first lady, Jacqueline, who unlike the other Kennedys, was more into culture than touch football.
I pulled over and dialed repeatedly. I love chamber music. The radio station's line was busy, busy, busy.
Finally, I got through. The DJ with the lovely voice asked what she could do for me.
"I'm calling with the name of the poet who read at the Kennedy Inauguration."
"I already have my winner, but what would you have said?"
"Robert Frost," I answered.
We both sighed.
She said, "It isn't easy to be the 10th caller."
No kidding, lady.
I didn't win the Kewpie doll at the fair.
Most Americans didn't even know that we had a Poet Laureate. Robert Frost was very old and stumbled over his poem, "Dedication," which he had written especially for the occasion. The blinding sun reflecting off snow made it impossible for him to read his text, and since the poem was so new, he had not committed it to memory. He finally gave up and recited an older poem, "The Gift Outright," by heart.
Every President since then has invited an American poet to read a poem at his Inauguration.
There has been much made of the similarities between Kennedy and Obama because of their enormous charisma, charm and intelligence as well as the rare ability to inspire young people to care deeply about their country.
Even more has been noted of the similarities between Lincoln and Obama, both senators from Illinois, authors of best-selling books, phenomenally gifted speakers who came to power during a national crisis, and widely considered too young for the responsibilities of president.
I think it would be a mistake to see Barack Obama as anyone other than himself. The torch may have been passed but the times have changed, requiring radically different approaches to solving the nation's and the world's problems. He is not another Lincoln or the new Kennedy but wholly himself, and that is exactly what we need today.
As we rejoice on this great occasion, we must come together and in Lincoln's words, "do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."