Jan 20, 2009

Dear Inaugural Committee

On the day of President Barrack Obama's inauguration, I'm pleased to share a guest column from a dear friend. Lisa Raleigh wrote this letter to the Obama inaugural committee in hopes of earning a ticket to the grand affair in Washington today. But her piece is so much more: It captures a sentiment felt across the country. And so I wanted to share it with you.

Dear Inaugural Committee,
When Barack Obama was elected President in November, I thought I would feel only uncomplicated joy. So I was very surprised by the sorrow and grieving that came along with it: sorrow for the suffering and loss of two wars, a bittersweet grief for a long-lost sense of trust.

Grief had not been invited to my post-election celebration, but I did not resist it, seeing it for what it was: an opening of the heart. It’s like the moment when an accident is over and the wreckage is cleared and you can finally let down your guard. This election — and its amazing landslide proportions — represented a homecoming of sorts, a sense that I was finally safe after a long, uncertain journey. Safe enough to feel what I’ve been feeling all along, but have hardly let myself experience — for the past eight years, to be sure, and for much, much longer, nearly a lifetime.

The two wars I am grieving are Iraq and Vietnam. I am a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s , born in the latter days of the baby boom, and now a 52-year-old woman who honestly can’t wait for the post-boomer era that Obama is said to exemplify. Finally, thankfully, I am ready to get past it: the distancing and resignation that have been my defense for so long.

Here’s how I got there: Like so many others, my worldview was formed by indelible images brought into my living room by network news and Life magazine — starting, of course, with the horse-drawn cart of JFK’s funeral. Then fast-forward just a few years to soldiers in triage; Medevacs hovering; body bags on the tarmac; a monk consumed by flames but seated in a perfectly calm lotus; a kneeling man, his face contorted sideways as a pistol is fired into his temple, his executioner just at the edge of the frame. These were overwhelming images for a child in elementary school, for anyone of any age.

But then there were the protests, and this made sense to me. I thrilled to learn of young people marching in San Francisco and Berkeley, not far from my home, but I was far too young to join them. I studied the face of Lyndon Johnson, who addressed the nation again and again, but his expression did not reassure me; he looked more and more defeated over time, and in fact he was. Johnson had concluded that the war could not be won, yet he concealed this from us; all he revealed at the time was that he would not run again. Fortunately, Bobby had the fire; even an eleven-year-old could see that. Bobby Kennedy would end the war.

I didn’t realize my heart was broken when Bobby died. I couldn’t go there. I felt disgust toward at his assassin, but not sadness for his death. It was the beginning of numbness, a protective shell that I would eventually layer with outrage and cynicism, both of which I cultivated throughout my teens and beyond.

Questioning authority is any teen’s prerogative, but my adolescence happened to coincide with Richard Nixon’s presidency, and this was the perfect foil. I didn’t know anything about politics, didn’t feel the need: it was enough that the counterculture reviled Nixon as a schemer. It’s only now, after years of looking back, reading, researching and educating myself, that I know more of the particulars, the machinations devised by Nixon and Kissinger that prolonged the war for years, condemned tens of thousands of Americans and Vietnamese to their deaths and ended finally in the pretense of “peace with honor.” At the time, I scorned this distortion of language as just so much spin (we called it BS then). Yet as uninformed as I was, history has proved this exactly on the mark and so much more.
Today, however, we do call it spin.

Fast forward 30 years. It is March, 2003, I am 46 years old, and I am driving home from work, tears streaming down my face, listening to George W. Bush reassert his reasons for launching an attack on Iraq, which would commence the very next day.

Over the previous weeks, as the Bush administration made its far-fetched case for war, that sense of outrage I had discovered in the Nixon years caught fire as never before and finally found an outlet for expression. I joined millions around the world marching in the streets, protesting the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. But this wasn’t just the realization of a childhood fantasy. This time, I was informed. Not for a moment did I believe that the looming mushroom clouds, ominously invoked in unison by Bush and Cheney and Rice, were anything but a willful delusion — if not a cynical manipulation of our vulnerability and fear of future attacks. But the massive protests failed to halt the crusade; in fact, Bush seemed to welcome the vast scale of resistance (bring it on), allowing him to display his resolve in his reckless rush to war. And so I wept in my car, anticipating the devastation that would come. This rawness was short-lived, however; the sense of helplessness and futility was too big to contain, and gave way to bitterness and resignation. No more tears. Not till November, 2008.

In the early days of the Obama campaign, when I was first dazzled by his eloquence, I didn’t trust my response. Could this be optimism? Hopefulness? Exhilaration? It seemed so incredibly na├»ve. But then I literally had to ask myself “what’s wrong with being inspired?” And so I let myself be moved. Moved to exuberance throughout the campaign, moved to tears of joy on election night, celebrating along with so many millions of others this shining moment in our history. It was electric, astonishing. What if we all dared to care and dream and stake our claim in the impossibly possible? Now we knew. It felt like coming home — but to somewhere I had never been before.

And yet I was a raw nerve, too.

Just after Obama’s election, George Bush appeared before the press to declare, among other things, that he would make history by leaving his successor two active wars. His tone and body language suggested the profundity of the moment, the awesome weight of responsibility — and the absurdity of this struck like a dagger to the heart. There wouldn’t be two wars had he not arrogantly agitated for Iraq; there would be only Afghanistan, and maybe not even that had he prosecuted that war with sufficient commitment and integrity. A legacy of two unfinished wars does not signify greatness. It is not a point of pride. It is an open wound.

Bush reminded us, too, that he’s a “wartime president” — and even though I had heard him use this self-aggrandizing phrase before, it was a fresh blow in my vulnerable state. The tone-deafness of it: As if wartime is something he has honorably navigated. As if this particular wartime has not been a catastrophe, the direct result of his failed leadership.

It hit full force then: the heartbreak. I found myself sobbing at the spectacle of this cluelessness. The forced language of legacy-making. The incalculable human cost.

They crashed into each other, a train wreck, and I wept for all that’s been lost and shattered and ruined, lives, families, futures, the divisiveness at home, the chaos abroad, the shameless disrespect of our intelligence and trust. Then and now. I let the full weight of it in because I could now afford to bear it, because this particular train wreck was all but over, ready to be cleared. The grieving went on for days, not continuously but always ready to be tapped, the tender core of it: We deserved so much better.

It’s safe to come out now, is what Obama’s inauguration will mean to me. “Safe” may seem a fragile commodity in the world awash in crises, economic and otherwise. But there’s a more elemental kind of safety, I believe: the security in knowing we are now in the hands of a leader with wisdom, maturity and heart — whose vision inspires confidence, whose authority we can trust. And it’s not just the man himself; it’s the millions upon millions who elected him. We have affirmed, together, that this is what we want, and this collective wisdom is a comfort and a blessing, too, a redemption. I feel as if I’ve found something I lost a long time ago.

And so I’m ready. Maybe we’re all ready. To move on.

Thank you for the opportunity to put this into words.

Lisa Raleigh

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