I usually get up around 6:00 so this morning was no exception. What was different was breaking my routine to turn on the TV and watch Barack Obama be sworn in as the 44th president of The United States of America. It was a moving few minutes. Everyone else in Washington DC was togged up against the weather but the new president stood in his suitcoat, calm and strong and not shivering in the freezing noontime air. He then spoke to the crowd in an address which struck me for what I did not hear. I was listening for the carefully crafted phrase: the line which would be quoted back for decades to come. I was listening for the gem which some employed poet, one of a team working in an Illinois office somewhere over the past 6 months, had come up with and honed and refined and reshaped so that it would resound down through the television speakers of the world over the next few decades. It didn't come. Praise God, it didn't come. To be sure the speech was polished and refined. To be sure, it bore all the marks of long hours of rehearsal . But in the final analysis it seemed to have more to do with the man who spoke it than with a team of paid embroiderers. It was eloquent and intelligent. It was delivered in the style of someone who knew what to do before a crowd: body still, head pivoting to the microphone not past it. A gaze which shifted every few seconds, looking at noone in particular but at everyone.Pauses which were as well chosen and as carefully shaped as the words in which they were encased. Here was an orator on top of his game, and he had the one orator's tool which no amount of schooling and training can reproduce: he believed what he was saying.
He drew constantly on the long history of America and its struggle to realise the ideals of the founding fathers. He made a few references to scripture. He distanced himself from the policies of George Bush while remaining generous to the man himself. He started and finished with the grave state of America and the world. Most importantly, for those of us watching from foreign lands, he signalled a new style of international diplomacy. 'America coughs and the rest of the world catches cold', goes the old saying. In real terms that means that the American bankers play fast and loose with mortgage rules and my house in New Zealand drops 20% in value. America wishes to protect its strategic interests in the Middle East and the refugees arrive on the coasts of my country. America begins a 21st Century War on Terror and then promulgates it using 19th Century strategies and we all watch as the Middle East churns and the terrorists spread and multiply. We don't get a vote, but we are vitally interested; and the thought of someone in the White House who has a conception of strength and leadership and change which doesn't necessarily involve blowing people to bits is a relief and a hope profound enough to move me to tears.
I have been to the United States several times. As with any country, there are parts of it which amuse and bemuse me; there are parts which at times disgust me; but there are parts of it I love almost as much as I love my own country. Particularly, I love the sheer gobsmacking grandeur of much of the place and the outlandish sense of space - physical psychological and spiritual. But what has always impressed me most is the general friendliness and decency of most of the people I met there, most of the time. And today I could believe that what is best about the USA -that friendliness and decency - has finally gained the upper hand. Perhaps there is a way of governing which goes behind the cynical deal making of most politics. Perhaps. It's been a hopeful day. Please God, may it remain so.