22 January 2009

A new leader, a new era

The White House website cheerily proclaims that "Change has come to America." Like many people around the globe, I was glued to the television at noon two days ago for President Barack Obama's inaugural address, which, as expected, he delivered masterfully:





I often tell my students that an American president must be both king and prime minister and it is the rare occupant of this office who can do both well. David Warren makes a similar point:

Unlike such countries as Canada and Britain, which retained the outward institution of monarchy but developed constitutional conventions by which real power was devolved upon boring legislatures, countries such as the U.S. and France chose to enhance the power of their monarchs, by giving them the golden sceptre of democratic legitimacy.

The British genius was to separate the charisma and pageantry of State from the actual exercise of power within it. Thus, so great a leader as Winston Churchill could wear some pretty attractive hats, but never a crown.

The American genius has been to flaunt that pageantry, in direct association with the power. Their presidents wear no crown, but the omission merely commemorates the conventions of the 18th century, when kings often went hatless, if not headless.

Americans have just crowned a new king, who, like his "royal" predecessors, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, is wonderfully adept at giving voice to the ideals and values that unify Americans across the political divide. Whether he will be nearly as effective in his prime ministerial role remains to be seen. Forty-five years ago Lyndon Johnson had not a trace of the kingly about him. He was a crude, ornery arm-twister, who, while failing in his wars on poverty and in Vietnam, nevertheless succeeded in securing fundamental civil rights for black Americans through his prime ministerial skills. Thus far Obama has few accomplishments behind him, except for running the consummate political campaign for office. For what it's worth, I wish him well and offer him the assurance that he will have my prayers as he attempts to live up to the huge expectations so many have of him.

By the way, here are the lyrics of the old Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern song which the President quoted in his speech. And here are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing to it:

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