I could not help but marvel today watching Barack Obama’s historic inauguration on television. It is true I marveled at seeing a black man take the presidential oath of office. If you had asked me in 2004, I would have guessed we would have to wait another two decades before we were collectively mature enough to elect a black man as president. It is also true that I marveled at the million plus Americans standing shoulder to shoulder on the Mall in freezing weather. They stretched from the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, with most cheering and waiving American flags. What I found the most marvelous of all was the peaceful transition of power itself. In many, if not most places in the world, a transfer of power of this magnitude is a cause for civil war or rioting. In the United States, it is a time for celebration and partying. Every four or eight years the world has a chance to witness and marvel at America’s peaceful transfer of power.
I felt the spirit of George Washington alive today in the city named to honor him. In his life, George Washington was so popular that could have been president for life. Instead, Washington performed perhaps his most patriotic act by declining a third term in office. In doing so, he showed us fledgling democrats that regular changes in leadership were healthy for a democracy and that our constitution transcended the personalities in power at any given moment.
Thanks in part to George Washington’s precedent another peaceful transfer of power went off today like clockwork and with great celebration. At precisely noon, President Obama became our 44th president, even though he had not yet taken the oath of office. At that exact time, the President’s military aide carrying our nuclear launch codes moved from President Bush’s side to President Obama’s side. Following protocol the new president saw the retiring president out of the Capitol and waved goodbye to him as a helicopter carried him out of Washington. Doubtless inside the president’s desk in the Oval Office was a letter from Former President George W. Bush to President Barack H. Obama with a customarily letter of congratulations and some personal thoughts on the transition of power.
As a civil servant myself, I watched this transfer of power at a somewhat lower level. Last Thursday, I was invited to a high level meeting. I sat across the conference table from our Associate Director. Also in the room were representatives from another department that we meet with quarterly. With one working day left on the George W. Bush Administration, the transition of power was on everyone’s mind and was freely discussed. Everyone was completely matter of fact about it and deeply respectful of the process which by then was well underway. Our Director was a political appointee and wanted to hang on in his job. Hearing nothing from the incoming administration though he knew what was expected and tendered his resignation. He did so not because he wanted to but because that is the way our system of government works. By losing his job, he demonstrated his respect our constitutional process and for the judgment of the American people.
Arguably, the outgoing administration was one of the most egregious in ignoring the law and the constitution. Yet, even this administration could not ignore our democratic electoral process. Had the outgoing administration, like so many banana republics, tried a coup d’état, I have no doubt where the loyalty of our armed forces, our secret service and our civil servants would have lied. Any such attempt is doomed to fail in America. Americans would not allow it. If push came to shove, the military, as is true of civil servants like me, are required to put the constitution above the orders of the president.
It says so much about the character of our country that these values are hardwired into us, in both good times and bad. Back in 2003, I penned a post where I lamented that America had lost its soul. Perhaps it was lost for a while. Perhaps our constitution was a more than a bit tattered by the latest Bush Administration. Yet, we survived and we did so in part because of George Washington’s example and the orders given by the people who once every four years weigh in on who their leader shall be.
Each inauguration is like a heartbeat in the life of our country. The mere fact that it happens like clockwork, in good years and bad, is proof that our country shall endure. Through regular repetition, these events ensure, however imperfectly, that our democracy will continue and we will keep moving forward toward a more perfect union.