Today president-elect Barack Obama gets to drop the “elect” and become president-proper. Whether he’ll make a proper president, no one knows for sure, but everyone except bigots and professional partisans certainly has to be hoping he will, out of self-interest if not patriotism.
Change is constant in America, and whatever our nostalgia, once we start preferring the old to the new wholesale, we’ll know it’s the end of us. But that hasn’t happened yet, and whenever we find ourselves exhausted, stagnant or frustrated, we manage to find a source of rejuvenation and come out the other side better for it.
I’ve heard it argued that the American Revolution wasn’t a real “revolution” because things didn’t change enough. It wasn’t like France or Haiti or Czarist Russia where the whole social order was upended, never to be put together again.
Unprecedented, though, is the Revolution of 1801 when President John Adams and his administration peacefully handed control of the nation’s highest office over to their political opponents.
George W. has joked his job would have been easier if he’d been a dictator, and this is true, but dictatorships need extraordinarily talented leadership to function. Even then, the magnificent human specimen Napoleon built and ruined an empire in just a few years. The same attributes that made him great undid him because he followed his virtues into vice.
It’s required an awful lot of talented people and more than a few geniuses to keep our government functioning 200-plus years, even without the crises faced during that time. Yet the true genius of our system is that mostly ordinary people have been able to manage it.
The United States Constitution is a work of human genius perhaps never surpassed, but the Framers were human and flawed, often shortsighted and wrong. Where they were specific, they were usually spectacularly wrong.
This isn’t blasphemous. Aristotle was an intellectual giant on a scale unmatched by any living person and yet thought heavy rocks fall faster than lighter ones. He’d get bounced out on “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” in no time at all.
At first it seems ridiculous that a man trying to keep his balance would want to hold something long and unwieldy. But tightrope-walkers do just that, for when they lose their balance to one side, they need the leverage at the end of the pole to right themselves again.
It’s no heresy to say our Founders never intended for the Constitution to answer our problems and instead gave us a way to answer our problems. They bequeathed to us the longest pole they could fashion, firm, but flexible, so that when we feel ourselves tipping over, we can grip to it together and keep walking forward.
Today Barack Obama will be inaugurated as president, and it’s not good or bad that we undergo this change, but it is necessary. When we speak of politics, we do so in terms of right and left, not right and wrong. We’re a democracy, and we often blunder, but we need flexibility and new direction periodically to keep our balance and find our way.
Republicans are out of power and will be revitalized trying to figure out what they did wrong. The Democrats will fix some of the Republican messes and make their own, and if we are very lucky, the former will outweigh the latter. Familiarity will breed contempt, and then someone else will get an opportunity.
Every two years the Revolution is reaffirmed, and every four years an opportunity to consummate it. The Constitution is alive and, well, we can hope that will never change.