“You sing it with us: we’ll give you the words.” –Pete Seeger, Washington, D.C., January 18, 2009
“The answer is to rely on youth—not a time of life, but a state of mind: a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity.” –Robert F. Kennedy, Cape Town, June 6, 1966
“It’s at that age where you really feel you can make a change—in your twenties or so—when you really feel you can make things happen. Things matter.” –Bob Dylan to Charles Kaiser, New York City, November 13, 1985
“Years from now, you’ll look back and you’ll say that this was the moment—this was the place—where America remembered what it means to hope.” Barack Hussein Obama, Des Moines, January 3, 2008
Yesterday’s inauguration was, indeed, a triumph of youth: Youthful intelligence fused with extraordinary focus, and a temperament so mature it is unlike any I have ever seen in a presidential candidate.
Yesterday finally brought the celebration that people like me—teenagers forty years ago—had expected at the end of 1968. We had no idea that we would have to spend forty years in the desert before we could experience it.
In 1968, a generation of idealists invested all of its hopes and dreams in Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. For one brief, shining moment, everything seemed possible: even a country of courage and decency and equality, one that would finally live up to the dreams of its founders.
Then two assassinations, followed by Richard Nixon’s election, paralyzed most of us for years to come. Only if you are old enough to remember what we imagined might be possible forty years ago can you really understand how hard it became for any of us to hope again.
When Barack Obama, with all his extraordinary promise, first captured the attention of a new generation of idealists, I identified with all the feelings of his fervent young supporters. And when Bob Dylan’s son Jesse produced a music video called “Yes We Can,” I suggested this might actually be a song that could change the outcome of an election.
But because of that part of me that I had lost forty years ago, I never really allowed myself to believe in the possibility of his victory. Even after his overwhelming success at the polls, it still didn’t feel real.
So after I watched the new president’s inaugural address live, I turned the television off until evening. Then I finally watched the rest of the day in rerun. This time, I knew, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy any of it until I was certain of a happy ending.
Years from now, people will look back on this inaugural address as a triumph of substance over trivia, of hope over fear, and idealism over folly. These two passages gave me the greatest pleasure:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.
Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.
At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
There were dozens of moments over the last three days that restored my faith that hope and virtue may yet survive. But to a ‘60s apostle, nothing could match the youthful power of the climax of Sunday’s inaugural concert: a beatific, eighty-nine-year-old Pete Seeger, joined by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and introduced by Bruce Springsteen as “the father of American folk music.” He was there to sing “perhaps the greatest song ever written about our home.”
“This Land is Your Land” was written in 1940 by Woody Guthrie, the most important troubadour of the working man during the Depression, a pal of Seeger’s for a time, and one of Bob Dylan’s two most important inspirations (Little Richard was the other one).
With Abe Lincoln surely smiling silently behind him, this survivor of the 1950s blacklist interrupted his banjo plucks to triumphantly raise his arms in front of a joyous, gigantic throng.
Almost no one remembered that this had also been Bobby Kennedy’s campaign song in 1968.
This land is your land, this land is my land From California, to the New York Island From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters This land was made for you and me
For this brief shining moment, that finally feels like our truth again.
Winners & Sinners
Winner: Francis X. Clines of The New York Times, the best reporter in America.Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.