Making History

25 01 2009

[You can listen to this episode here.]

There’s been a lot of talk this week about making history and I am reminded of a scene some years ago in the nave of Tewkesbury Abbey. The summer of two thousand and five saw dramatic floods in my home county of Gloucestershire. Several thousands of people had their homes destroyed, and the entire county was without drinking water for several weeks. You can imagine the distress and disruption that this caused. The army and police quickly snapped into action, in what was a textbook response to the crisis. Nevertheless simple but vital tasks, such as flushing toilets and cooking food, became a trial of imagination and resources. The whole affair had a rather dramatic feel to it, and nothing else seemed to occupy the minds or conversation of those effected. In a way, I suppose, similar to the all-consuming mania taking over the United States in recent days.


“It was the largest assembly of people in the entire history of the human race.” That’s how one commentator ventured to describe the scenes in Washington on Tuesday afternoon of last week. Over two millions of Americans crowded onto the National Mall, adding to the many thousands of invited guests, VIPS and the record-breaking security operation. All these were joined a global television audience estimated at two billions of people.


Even in the minds of the humble student watching from a cramped sitting room in York, there was a prevailing sense that the world had gathered to see a moment of history being made. And there is no doubt that January the twentieth, two thousand and nine, is a date that will be included in history textbooks for many years to come.


This was a political event, but for the first time in my memory of political life, nobody was talking of Iraq. Osama Bin Laden barely deserved a mention. Even the greatest financial crisis seen for more than fifty years was relegated that afternoon to a mere footnote. The world’s attention – its eyes, and importantly, its ears – were focussed on one man: A man who, just over four years ago, joined the senate as a relative unknown from Illinois. On Tuesday afternoon he swore the oath of office to become the forty-fourth President of the United States – President Barack Obama.


There has been much written and said about this man, and his remarkable story. So much so that I would normally be tempted to write much of it off, as meaningless hyperbole. For once, though, it would be difficult for even the most excitable reporter to overstate the significance of it all. However, one of the great joys of student life is that particular breed of sceptic who relishes the dismissal of any noteworthy deed, person or occasion. Well, the election and inauguration of Barack Obama has been a feast for them. “Pish” they say. “All this changes nothing. It’s still the same old system, and one man can’t change the world.” Well, they may be right to be cynical about the capacity of individuals. But they seem to miss the point of what makes Obama so special.


Right from the very beginning of the primary campaign, this calm and agreeable man has sounded a peculiar cry: “Yes, we can.” This simple message of optimism and hope has struck at the hearts of the American people. Turning their back on the last eight years of government, they regarded Barack Obama not as a politician. He became a messiah. His presidential campaign raised more money than any other candidate in history – a staggering three hundred and ninety million dollars. Eighty-eight percent of this was raised not through the conventional lobbying routes, and donations of rich individuals. Most of this cash was raised through online donations of five or ten dollars, from the little guys: the average American voters.


The Barack Obama story, when it is told to generations of the future, will not be a mere sequel to that great epic ‘Kennedy’. This is very different to all that. Obama represents a change in what it means to be an American president. He’s black. He’s cool. He’s straight-talking. He’s in touch. He’s a good dancer. Whatever his successes and failures in office, the new president has already earned his place in the history books. This man is so far away from what has gone before that America, perhaps the world, has been shifted by his presence. The change has already happened. The history has already been made.


So, there we were on Tuesday night. We had a new President in the White House and at least some reason to be optimistic about the future. Or so we thought. Turns out there was a problem. The White House legal team informed the new ‘President’ early on Wednesday afternoon that there were questions over the oath he took the day before. Now the US constitution can be vague at times, but it is very clear about the changeover to a new president. The old term of office starts at precisely twelve noon, at which point the president-elect becomes the president. However, he may not use any of his powers until he has sworn the presidential oath – helpfully written down, word for word in the constitution.


Well, you may recall that Mr Obama’s swearing of this oath was less than smooth. It seems the Chief Justice fluffed it. One word – faithfully – not left out, but moved to the end of its stanza. For most of us this might seem immaterial, but the Americans take the inaugural very seriously. A fear developed within the President’s team that crackpots, conspiracy theorists and, of course, lawyers would start to cause trouble. So, in what the President himself called an ‘abundance of caution’, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was called into the White House to repeat the ceremony.


And here’s where it gets interesting. John Roberts, a fifty-three year old from Buffalo, New York, was initially nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bush, back in two thousand and five. As always, this had to be confirmed by the Senate but before that could happen, another vacancy came up. William Rehnquist, the Chief Justice, died suddenly. Bush, not wishing to lose this rare opportunity, speedily re-nominated Roberts to the new position.


A few days later he was called before the relevant senate committee, where his appointment was duly confirmed, if only with a thirteen to five majority. Let me give you the names of the senators who voted against: Richard Durbin, Charles Shumer, Dianne Feinstein, Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and, you guessed it, Barack Obama.

A handy example of that handy piece of advice given to me by my mother – always be nice to everybody you meet. You never know when you might need a favour.


Now, returning to the floods of Gloucestershire: Once the necessary evacuations had been made the massed media looked for a new source of drama and tension. They turned to Tewkesbury Abbey, the cathedral-sized church that sits majestically over the River Severn. She had begun to take on water. In one Chapel, at the east end, water was already several feet deep and rising. The vicar was located by the news cameras, and dramatically asked what he was doing to protect this special piece of architectural history. “Nothing” was the priest’s response. “The abbey is nearly a thousand years old. It’s seen worse floods than this every century.”


My housemate tells me that is an example of a ‘sublime’ moment – when you suddenly realise that the world of your own existence is just an insignificant part of something much greater. I wonder whether, when Tewkesbury Abbey celebrates is two thousandth birthday the men and women of Gloucestershire will still be talking about those floods, and if the people of America about Barack Obama and the twentieth of January 2009.




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