A government in the nature of things, with intelligent (human) design
I could not make the inaugural, but I had to be in Washington on Friday, and I decided to make a pilgrimage. After walking halfway across the city (dragging a rolling bag all the way) I stood in a happy, multiracial crowd before the White House fence,
thinking about the new principal resident.
Then I walked from the White House to the base of the Washington Monument (my son Adam had called me from there just before noon on Tuesday). I could see the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the Capitol to the east. I had seen the inaugural concert on television, symbolically held in front of the Lincoln shrine. I had stood on the mall beside the reflecting pool on August 28, 1963, just shy of my seventeenth birthday, when I heard a great man intone from the steps of that same memorial, “I have a dream today.”
That was just a century after the abolition of slavery, which had lasted for 245 years. In another year the dream of voting rights was realized, and 35 years after that, the presidency. African-Americans have been very patient with a democracy that promised so much while delivering little. Their patience, along with their firm faith, accounts as much as anything for the fact that our democracy is at this moment the envy of the world.
Now of course it is Obama’s turn to deliver, and we must be patient with him. The Obamas took their daughters Malia and Sasha to see and read Lincoln’s words carved in stone. Malia read the Second Inaugural, asked her dad if he had to give a speech like that, and said, “Hmm. First African-American president. Better be good.”
It was good, not great. In a situation that called for noblesse oblige, he took swipes against his predecessor, kicking a man who was hurt and down; oddly, since he planned to continue most of that man’s core policies. But in the second half of the speech Obama did shed partisan rhetoric and began to fulfill his immense promise.
I wrote about the anthropological context of his achievement in getting the nomination (and Hillary’s in almost getting it) and of his election victory. Now I wanted to return in the immediate wake of the inaugural and walk the distance from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, recalling the events I had seen televised.
But just three days later, the dominant sense was not celebration, but the fact that this able, imperfect man was now at work at his desk across the lawn, behind the columns of the big white house; that the Capitol was filled with the same debates and rifts as always; and that the Supreme Court on the other side of it would sit behind its even more imposing columns to judge and dispose of all they try to do.
Which is as it should be. In his address, the new president appealed not just to Lincoln and King, heroes and martyrs of the cause of freedom for African-Americans. He appealed to Washington, holder of slaves, and the first holder of the office whose duties he had just sworn faithfully to discharge.
This was his most important signal. President Obama knows the imperfections of our democracy; that Washington could stand up for liberty even while owning other men; that while Washington only freed those men after his death, he did at last free them; and that our democracy is a work in progress that has required four hundred years of patience and will require many more.
He knows too that Washington set the stage for presidential restraint, a profound respect for the balance of powers, and that, had he not, that fledgling democracy would surely have failed. Had he abused his immense popularity and power, our democratic traditions would have been stillborn.
The Founders had a dark view of human nature, and they designed an exceptionally intricate machinery of government to keep it in check. They believed, with Thomas Hobbes, that anarchy-“the warre of all against all”-is always just below the surface, but they did not think that autocracy was the only way to keep it there. They thought they had a better way, but they could not have been sure that it would work.
When Washington, after eight years in office, willingly stepped down, he set the precedent for what we saw last Tuesday. As I stood before the Capitol, I closed my eyes and saw it again. One minute, a man held all the power to deploy boundless military might against foreign enemies or, in certain circumstances, against his own people; the next minute, he stepped aside and gave that power to another.
I have now seen this happen eight times since I was old enough to understand it, and it never fails to amaze me.
A friend among the !Kung San of Botswana once asked me, “The government-is it a paper, or is it people?” I did my best to explain that I thought it was some of both. But in this American democracy the paper has the upper hand, a document so well crafted that it could maintain its power over deeply flawed individuals for over two centuries.
Democracy is the most natural form of government. The face-to-face societies of our hunter-gatherer ancestors had natural leveling mechanisms. Talent could out, but could not yield excessive power. The emergence of “civilization” with its large populations fostered excessive power for millennia. But the Enlightenment began the restoration of “primitive” democracy, most fully realized in the paper signed by the wise, clever men who founded the United States of America.
Barack Obama likes to chant, almost to sing, that name of our country. He now wields its power to the extent that the well-crafted paper will allow. He is himself an expert on that paper, and in the midst of terrible frustrations he will remember well that they are part of a form of government that is very bad, but not as bad as any of the others.