Witnessing Hope and History
February 2009

by Peter Howe

I only ever shot one Inaugural – Ronald Reagan's first in 1981. My recollection of it was being cold and bored. As with all political photography your images are only as good as your access, and mine, a Washington outsider working for a French press agency, sucked. I was stuck on a platform that, while it afforded a clear view of the swearing-in ceremony, confined me from doing anything else. I was recording rather than photographing – literally anyone could have shot what I did that day. I also don't remember it striking me as being a particularly historic occasion. It was just some old guy with his hand on a Bible taking an oath before going to work. I would have had more fun shooting a college football game, and I hate football.

I hope that my successors who worked at this year's Inaugural felt differently, because as an observer from my home in rural Connecticut it seemed that what unfolded before their lenses was a sea change socially, politically and culturally the like of which I have never witnessed in my lifetime. To say that the Inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States was remarkable is like saying that the Grand Canyon is big. But it was exceptional on so many levels. One of these was history, and not just the history-making event itself. If you don't know that on January 20, 2009, the first ever African-American president took office you can come out of your cave now. Apart from this obvious example there was an invocation of a broader history by every commentator and pundit who commented on television, in newspapers or on the Internet on that day and those that preceded it. In fact the two biggest beneficiaries of the free advertising that came from being associated with Obama's name were Blackberry, and Simon and Schuster, the publishers of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals," the title of which had been quoted as a description of Obama's own cabinet choices for weeks on end. The historian herself was to be seen nightly on MSNBC, and on the mother network NBC during Inauguration Day. In my experience America has never been particularly fascinated with history, partly because she has so little of it. President Obama himself said that she is still a young country. But I think that in times of national crisis such as these, countries look to history for lessons and guidance, and certainly the president himself looked to his predecessors for the tone and in some parts even the content of his Inaugural address. And while it may be true that the only lesson we learn from history is that we never learn from the lessons of history, Obama might be a thoughtful enough president to break this cycle. Certainly most of the spectators questioned on every television channel as to why they had come to watch the celebration answered that it was to witness history being made, and throughout the day commentators reminded us that Barack Obama's ascendancy to the highest office in the land would not have happened had it not been for the struggles and sacrifices of the past that made it possible.

The day was notable not just because of the history it reflected, but maybe even more significantly because of what it may foretell. As long as I have lived in this country, after every election cycle complaints have been voiced about the disengagement of youth. Young people simply didn't vote, and were disinterested in the political process. The brilliance of the Obama campaign showed us that this may not have been caused just by apathy, but because they simply had no one to vote for, nobody who would engage them on their own terms and in their own language. I cannot tell you the number of my friends who became interested in this candidate because their children led them to him. The baby-boom generation has much to be proud of in the political activism of the Sixties and Seventies and the courage and fortitude of those who fought in the battle for civil rights, but their contribution to public service at the national level has been less stellar. Of the two baby-boom presidents, one has been a disappointment and the other a downright catastrophe. The boomers' day is rapidly fading, but to look at the number of young faces celebrating on the Mall in Washington, braving frigid temperatures, many of them having stayed up all night, was to witness what may be a new Morning in America.

Inauguration Day both reflected and transcended the nation's past and future, for as the new president himself reminded us we live in a world that is as interconnected as it is complex. It is no coincidence that the Israelis withdrew the last of their troops from Gaza on this day. Neither is it insignificant that for the millions of television viewers in the United States there were tens of millions also tuned in across the globe. There was an estimate of 200 million but how it was arrived at is anyone's guess, which is probably how it was arrived at! It seems, however, that those naughty axis-of-evil people still haven't learned their lesson because the Inaugural ceremonies were not reported on the official news outlets of either Iran or North Korea.

One of the cultural shifts that Obama has to effect during his time in office is a deeper realization by the American public that what happens in the rest of the world is as important to us as what happens here is to the rest of the world. To be the last superpower left standing does not endow us with the right to ride roughshod over the interests of other nations, and the time for unilateralism is now over, if there ever was one in the first place. Obama's proven ability to reach out, embrace and include people and ideas with which he may not agree is needed now more than ever. It is ironic that the domino effect so feared by the warriors of the Cold War turned out not to presage the spread of communism but the collapse of banks, and that the first domino fell in America.

I watched more television on Inauguration Day than I will for the rest of the month, while at the same time I had my laptop open by my side and the radio tuned to "Tell Me More" on NPR. This last program was coming live from the Canadian Embassy in Washington, which somehow seemed an appropriate location for NPR. I was also logged on to The Huffington Post, something I do every day, but the site was a dissatisfying way of experiencing the event. Their news coverage strategy was to stream the same MSNBC into a 2-inch by 1-inch space that I was watching on my 32-inch Sharp Aquos, and their live blogging achieved the level of political insight that is commonly found on "Access Hollywood."

While glued to the screen I was aware of both the strengths and weaknesses of television. It captures the excitement and gives a picture of the overall scene that is unequalled, but evanescent. The difference between it and a photograph is the difference between hearing a speech and a quotation from the speech. I doubt there is anyone alive who could recite all of FDR's first Inaugural address, but tens of millions remember: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Still photography, while lacking the immediacy of television, is like the quotation, something that we can carry in our minds for a long time. The image that stays with me is Callie Shell's picture of Obama looking like a matador about to face a fearsome bull, or a tennis player in the tunnel of the U.S. Open that leads to the court where he will capture the championship. This is the way it has always been in the relationship between the still and moving image.

There is another image that I retain, actually a montage of many sights from that day. It is the image of hope and celebration, from the delighted smiles on the faces of the Obama daughters to the sheer joy on the sea of faces that stretched from one end of the Mall to the other. As the camera swept over the upturned heads and waving arms I was struck by the paradox of so much optimism at a time of so much despair. We may be heading for a depression but you wouldn't know it from the very cool African-American guy in the crowd holding a hand-lettered sign that said: "Brother's Gonna Work it Out."

Scientists tell us that many events that we consider natural disasters such as forest fires and floods are actually nature's way of making a clean start. I'm not sure whether the Bush-Cheney presidency was a natural or unnatural disaster, but a disaster it certainly was. One can only hope that, like a forest fire, it has given us a chance to burn out the deadwood and allow new growth to occur. The nation seems up for it, and, with an Inauguration Day approval rating of 83%, Barack Obama is the one it's pinning its hopes on. As Rachel Maddow said after she had been on air for what seemed to have been 14 hours continuously: "What a day; what a country."

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© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor