Saturday, January 24, 2009

A New Day For Amercia and the World

Eight days before Barack Obama became the first African American with a desk in the Oval Office, Tony Dungy retired as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. I respect and admire Tony Dungy, even though I don't root for his team. He led his squad with class and dignity, and players and colleagues universally respected him. The understated nature of his retirement, ahead of the off-season, while the league was distracted by the playoffs, probably was to his liking.

Tony Dungy was the first African-American head coach to win the Super Bowl. Merely days before Dungy's NFL Championship against the Chicago Bears in 2007, I listened to "Mike and Mike in the Morning" (ESPN Radio) discussing one fact about the game that was overlooked-- BOTH head coaches were African American (Lovie Smith coached the Bears in that game). Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic seemed somewhat amazed-- and to some extent apologetic-- that they weren't talking about that fact more. It appeared no one really was. The fact that an African American coach was going to win football's most important contest... well, it just didn't seem to matter.

Wow, has this country come a long way in a short period of time. Barack Obama is the first African American President of the United States, and his skin color just doesn't seem to
matter. No one is talking about the Bradley effect anymore.

Obama never really made race an issue in the campaign. He never had to. His message resonated across party and racial lines. He brought a fresh, young face to a country that desperately needed to see it. His words changed little from the very beginning of his campaign to Tuesday's inaugural speech. It's going to be hard and it's going to require sacrifice, but we will get there.

The enormous crowd assembled on the Mall in Washington saw citizens of every heritage and ethnicity.

President Obama hugged his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, at her December 2003 wedding to Konrad Ng, third from right, in Hawaii. From left, his daughters, Sasha and Malia; his grandmother Madelyne Dunham, seated; Konrad’s parents, Joan and Howard Ng, and brother Perry Ng; and Michelle Obama.

Among the many photo montages online, I spotted this photo on Tuesday. It was taken in December 2003, at the wedding of Barack Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, in Hawaii. [Sidenote: President Obama has several half-siblings. Maya was the President's mother's second child. The President's dad had four children prior to marrying the President's mother, and he had three children and two wives after returning to Kenya.]

The picture demonstrates clearly what President Obama represents, and what the United States has become. A true racial mix. The photo includes President Obama and his daughters, as well as his half-sister (born in Indonesia), his half-sister's new husband and in-laws (Canadian), his grandmother (born in Kansas), and his wife (born in Chicago).

President Clinton said many times in the 1990's that the biggest asset to this country is our racial diversity. The fact that we can overcome racial divides when the cause and time are right. The time is right today, and the cause is urgent.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken from a must-read story: "Nation's Many Faces in Extended First Family," by Jodi Kantor, New York Times, January 20, 2009.

Beyond the issue of race, the magnitude of the power transfer on Tuesday is unimaginable to me. From the moment they met Tuesday morning for coffee, to the warm and seemingly genuine embrace when the departing President boarded the Marine helicopter, it was easy to overlook the dramatic rift between the outgoing and incoming Presidents.

They disagree on many issues, and yet the peaceful transfer of power happened, based on what out of context would be called arbitrary words on a random piece of paper we call the Constitution. In no other country could such an event take place.

President Obama got to work quickly, dismantling the many processes that his predecessor put in place. Despite the radical shift, his decisions were respected. The military trials in Cuba, created by President Bush, were halted, literally in mid-proceeding. With the stroke of a pen, the controversial overseas CIA prisons were closed (though President Obama can use them again if he wants), and CIA interrogation practices were limited to the same code of conduct the military follows (Sidenote: A law to codify this failed to pass Congress last year; John McCain was among those who voted against it).

Signatures are ink. Executive orders are written on paper and are mere letters. But Obama's signature instantly took on the weight of the President's office at exactly noon Washington time Tuesday (regardless of when he took the oath, he took office at noon). As overlooked as the color of his skin is the fact that Obama's early orders-- so dramatically different than just a few short hours earlier-- were accepted, immediately, as a matter of law.

The inaugural events overshadowed another dismal week for the American economy. Large banks continue to wither; talk commenced this week of the U.S. government taking over major financial institutions altogether. The unemployment rate rises and mortgage foreclosures continue.

Yes, we need President Obama now. And the nation stands behind him.

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