WATCHING A PRESIDENT
On inauguration day in 1961, I was 11 going on 12. I was home sick, under a blanket, in my grandmother’s parlor. She lived in Independence, Missouri in the white Victorian house her parents built in the 1880s. Her house was a few blocks from the Truman home. She was born in 1884, when Chester A. Arthur was president. He succeeded President James A. Garfield, assassinated in 1881.
She was a kind, quiet widow who took in roomers during the Depression. I don’t recall her ever saying anything unkind to or about anyone. I was convinced the house was haunted.
On the day the young president stepped to the microphone, I was watching a small black and white Philco. I recall that speech, and that room, as vividly as I remember the other images and feelings that came later, on the day he died.
It was bitterly cold on the day of the inauguration. Kennedy did not wear a hat. As he spoke, I sat up, deeply inspired and didn’t know why. It was not what he said, it was how he said it. Even with his flaws, Kennedy lifted us up, made us feel that we were a better people.
Barack Obama was born six months later.
Many years later, I was in a high school auditorium on Chicago’s South Side. I had been invited to attend Obama's announcement of a White House program that would provide a free annual pass to every 4th grader, and their entire family, to any National Park and many other federal lands and waters. Private money would be raised to provide buses for the kids least likely to experience wilderness.
Before he spoke, about 30 of us were ushered behind a curtain to meet the president.
Waiting in line, I watched him for several minutes. He bent over and listened carefully to a man in a wheelchair. It was the Republican Illinois Senator, who had suffered a massive stroke, and who later lost his reelection campaign to a Democratic candidate. The Democrat, a war veteran, also uses a wheelchair. Obama and the Senator spoke quietly for a while. The line of people waited. Then the line moved.
What I noticed was his kindness. I had never thought of him as unkind, but now I saw something that did not show itself so easily on the stump or on television. It could be seen and felt each time someone approached him, or he approached them.
The line moved again. An attendant escorted each person to his side, and the camera flashed. Some people held Obama’s hand captive, talking at him more than with him. Obama was patient. Then it was my turn. His hand was long and thin and almost delicate. I thanked him for the parks program. “It’s important,” he said. Then I stepped away and he turned to the next person.
As a journalist, I was trained long ago to avoid being taken in by celebrity. But, though I did not agree with all of his policies, I was honored to shake his hand. Partly, that feeling was personal, and an admiration for his character. It was also because he and his administration, with the help of thousands of volunteers and teachers and pediatricians and parents and grandparents, did so much to connect future generations of children to the natural world. So did members of the Bush administration.
The image you see above is part of a larger photo that arrived by U.S. Postal Service several weeks later, from the White House. Unsigned, it is one of thousands of such photographs. Right now, it is on a book case in my office, propped up behind a microscope my father gave me when I was 10. I have not bought a frame for it yet.
Since that day in my grandmother’s parlor in 1961, I’ve watched every televised presidential inaugural speech. Tomorrow I’ll probably skip the speech. Like many, and for a list of reasons, I'm not up for the festivities. And by now, I’ve learned that inaugural speeches are mostly forgettable.
Kennedy’s inaugural, in fact, was not his best speech. That one occurred on a bright spring day at Washington's American University. The president had been shaken and changed by the Cuban Missile Crisis. In that address, he said something nearly unsayable at the time, at least by a national politician. He acknowledged that the Soviet people were human beings.
“So let us not be blind to our differences,” he said, “but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”
Six months later, Kennedy was dead.
So tomorrow I’ll probably avoid the television. Instead, at noon, I’ll say a small prayer, or something like a prayer, for Obama’s ongoing safety. We’re going to need him. And I’ll say one for Trump, too.
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