Saturday, January 24, 2009
What did you do on Inauguration Day? Dr. Andrew Moyce of Oakland spent the day doing his civic duty: showing up for jury service at the Alameda County Courthouse.
He was ordered to be there by 8:30, with stern warnings about possible fines if he was late.
"The parking lot was full by the time I arrived at 8:15, and I had to find another lot across the street," he says. "That lot required a prepay ticket from a very slow machine, so I joined the line of a dozen or so fellow jurors waiting to pay.
"After that, a hurried walk all the way around the courthouse to find the only open entrance, followed by the security check. I got to the jury room, breathless, at about 8:45 and handed my papers to the admitting clerk."
The potential jurors - about 200 people, ranging in age from 18 to senior citizens - were ushered into the waiting room. Television sets were mounted on the pillars around the room, all tuned to the inauguration.
"The first thing that struck me was the respectful silence of the people in the room. The clerk could be heard checking people in at the door, and an occasional person talked quietly on a cell phone while people in the vicinity frowned disapproval, but overall there was an ecclesiastic silence.
"On television, Diane Feinstein had just started the ceremonies, and she held the rapt attention of everyone in the room. All eyes were on the nearest TV, and the seats with backs to the TV were empty, while several of us stood around the edges. Even during the two musical performances, no one spoke."
When the time for the oath of office arrived, Feinstein asked everyone at the ceremony to stand.
"From across the jury room a middle-aged African American lady - I think she was a clerk - called out, 'C’mon people, this is history! Stand up!'
"As she moved into the crowd, gesturing with her arms, it was plain that she was not to be denied. Within seconds, all of us were on our feet. After the oath was administered, complete with flubs, our room filled with applause, punctuated with loud whoops, and several people were in tears.
"An older white man softly applauded as the new president thanked the outgoing president for his service to the country. During his comments on upholding the Constitution, as the camera focused in on an uncomfortable-looking Mr. Bush, there were scattered outbreaks of derisive laughter. When Mr. Obama acknowledged that we are a nation of various religions - and non-believers, too - a very Berkeley-looking lady in jeans and a flannel shirt clapped alone.
"When the speech was over there was more applause from our group, and not a few handshakes and hugs were shared. All stood in formal attention as the choir sang the National Anthem, and several of us joined in.
"The mood was broken only when the clerk interrupted the broadcast to remind us that we were here for a purpose, and he started the first roll call.
"It finally occurred to me that no court business would take place during the ceremony, as the judges were probably sequestered in chambers with their own TV sets. Time at the courthouse seemed at a standstill until the business of federal government was accomplished.
"After the second roll call my name still had not been called, and those who remained in the room - about a third of the original crowd - were thanked for our service and dismissed.
"I left feeling that I had literally been swept into participation in history. Jury calls have a way of taking us out of our comfortable routines, and, after a frantic start, the day turned out in a way I hadn’t planned. But somehow when it was over, it seemed just right."
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The 19th Century German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck once said, "God looks after drunks, little children and the United States of America."
If you ever needed proof of that, look at what happened today. With our whole world unraveling everywhere we look, along comes the perfect guy to deal with it.
Coincidence? I don't think so.
Shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes went to the White House to check out the new president.
He came away much relieved. FDR, he said, had "a second-rate intellect." But, he added, it didn't matter because FDR had a first-rate temperament.
But we're even luckier. Our new president has both a first-rate intellect and a first-rate temperament. The last one we had with that combination was Lincoln. Like Lincoln, he has that rarest of gifts: the ability to step outside himself and look at himself objectively.
He's like a chess master, always thinking two or three moves ahead. Even during the hottest moments of the campaign, he was keeping one eye on how he would govern.
That's why he's able to brush off past slights and surround himself with people who have said really awful things about him. He's not threatened by their intellects, and he's not threatened by their ambitions. All he cares about is whether they can help him save our country.
And that's why the young people love him so much. They think of him as their best hope to move America past the issues of the 20th Century and start dealing with the issues of the 21st.
I don't think they fully appreciate the significance of having our first African American president because they're looking forward, not back. Heck, they don't even see him as black; they see him as multi-racial, which reflects the world they live in.
And they're right. Black father, white mother, growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii - he's our first global president. Everyone in the world can identify with him, and he can identify with them.
For the first time since 1963, the coolest guy on the planet, bigger than any rock star, the idol of every teenager from Beijing to Baghdad, is the President of the United States. How cool is that?
But I can't help one last glance backward to when I was a kid, when separate - but definitely not equal - was the law of the land.
It was worst in the South, where it was open season on blacks. A white could bully, cheat, rape, even kill blacks; and nobody would lift a finger.
But the shame wasn't confined to the South. Even in liberal Berkeley - Berkeley! - the schools weren't fully desegregated until September 1968, five months after Martin Luther King was killed.
That history was implicit in everything that happened Tuesday, especially in Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction. He was with King from the very start, succeeding him as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He began the prayer with a quote from a 109-year-old song that I'll bet every African American in the country recognized immediately: "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing," aka "The Negro National Anthem":
"God of our weary years/God of our silent tears/Thou who has brought us thus far on the way/Thou who has by Thy might/Led us into the light/Keep us forever in the path, we pray."
As I heard those words, the images of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, those four little girls in Birmingham and so many others came flooding through my mind.
Not that racism is dead. As usual, the black guy had to be twice as good to get the job. But something wonderful is happening in this country.
President Obama, as usual, said it best: "What the cynics have failed to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them."
Our president has given us our marching orders. Be the change.