A friend of ours works for the World Wildlife Federation and often travels overseas. She has heard from family in her native Zimbabwe and friends in New Zealand excited about watching Barack Obama's inaugural address tomorrow.
Even in these glum economic times, this is a week of euphoria for not only many Americans but also many who live continents away. That any politician could reach halfway around the world before taking office is dizzying and a little terrifying. Can any one man live up to such expectations?
It's an interesting exercise to make sense of the giddiness that surrounds Obama and his inauguration. Is it because of his race? His relative youth? His telegenic family? His exotic name and international background? His repeated calls for a unified America, for all working as one without regard to race, creed, religion or party affiliation? Is it because of our utter fatigue and disgust with George W. Bush? Is it because hope is something everyone needs these days?
I suspect all these pieces play some part in sorting out the puzzle. But to me one other, even brighter, element stands out -- the intelligence and humanity of Barack Obama. He reads. And he can write, not only better than most presidents but better then most writers. Watching him emerge and evolve as president is an awfully exciting prospect after eight years of listening to a guy who steadfastly refuses to pronounce the word "nuclear" or to believe in scientific evidence. The bad dream is finally ready to end, though, judging from the wreckage left behind, it was no dream at all.
Yet something special is emerging from this morass. Slowly, through the prompting of the words of Obama the story teller, as well as through the reality of Obama, our first African-American president, Americans have begun sharing their own perspectives on and experiences with racial and social divisions in what, in a virtual sort of way, is emerging as a kind of societal dialogue with no moderator and no physical common for the exchange.
So let me join in. I grew up the son of liberal Democrats -- in an all white suburban Long Island town. The only black in our school didn't live there. His name was Matt Snell. He ran like a bulldozer, and after graduating from Carle Place High School, he went on to a Hall of Fame professional football career as a fullback.
One super star, bused in. That's what passed for integration in the '50s and '60s in more than our middle American community. Back then, many hundreds of miles north of cities like Birmingham, Jackson and Selma, places in the news because of their vicious and violent opposition to anything smacking of change from the ways of Jim Crow, we too still had an awfully long way to go.
Northern bigotry was subtler. As a kid, I remember a corporate cocktail party somewhere in Ohio, an affair for the executives of the lighting company for which my father worked. An executive's wife asked my mother what she would do if I -- probably 7 or 8 years old at the time -- were to date or marry a black woman. "My sons can go out with whomever they want," my mother shot back, perhaps a bit too righteously. In my town, you see, there were no black girls, no brown ones either.
Sometime in the same mid-'50s timeframe, my father struck a public blow for racial equality, though I think it was prompted more by a growling stomach than a sense of social outrage. Such was Gunther Lanson. My family was on a ferry, heading, I believe, toward Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay, and the dining quarters on the crowded boat were segregated, though I didn't really know what that meant. All I saw was one area with a long line of people waiting to be seated and another, smaller area, that was nearly empty. That's where we Lansons sat down -- and waited a long time for a waiter to approach. That's when my father had one of his most persuasive temper tantrums -- and the lily-white Long Island Lansons got served in the "Negroes Only" section of the dining room. I'd like to tell you that my father was making a bigger statement that day. But I think he just wanted lunch.
Today, I have to wonder whether my kids have similar insights into their parents. I confess. We live in a town that's only a bit more diverse than the one I grew up in. And, no: Good schools are no excuse for seeking what amounts to self-segregation. Still, I'm starting to make sense of the stupidity of the stultifying racial divides that have too long held back these United States. At least once every week I hold an ambassador of a new America close to my heart, in the squirming shape of my gorgeous mixed-race grand-daughter. I've come a long ways, too, in my interest, understanding and outreach to friends who didn't grow up in -- and back then weren't welcome in -- the homogenous and oh-so-dull communities like the one of my upbringing. Still, like most of us, I have a ways to go before race and ethnicity play no role in perception of the reality around me.
That, too, is why I'll be watching the inaugural at noon Tuesday with a special sense of renewal and excitement. These United States under the leadership of Barack Obama face truly daunting times and truly daunting tasks. But I sense from all that Barack Obama is and represents that we will all be in this struggle together, following a man with a keen feel for the moment and a clarion eloquence to articulate what we can do to make the most of it.
Perhaps there's nothing to worry about, after all.