Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Airbama (Inaugural thoughts)

I got to work yesterday and there was hardly anyone there. Most of the office had gone to watch President Obama’s Inaugural speech. I decided to watch on my work computer over the Internet. It seemed fitting. I have vague memories of watching JFK’s inauguration. To be honest, I can’t say if they’re live memories or I’ve seen so much tape of it over the years that I think I actually saw the “Ask not what your country can do for you” a speech that eventually played in every elementary school in America. JFK was the first American President to master the television and his speech with its 19th century locution was perhaps JFK truly great tv moment. Obama is the first successful Presidential candidate to mobilized his campaign through the internet. It only made sense to usher in the new age this presidency represents by watching via T1 connection instead of through rabbit ears.

To many, yesterday’s highlight was Chief Justice Roberts’s flubbing of the lines for the oath of office and what it meant. I figured that he’d be demanding to see Obama’s birth certificate. He was maybe anticipating how to handle pronouncing the “Hussein” part of our President’s formal name for maximum effect to get back at Senator Obama for voting against his confirmation as Chief Justice. Anyway, when they strangled the word “faithfully”, a really sharp camera crew would have cut immediately to soon to be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

I think a lot of people were surprised by President Obama’s relatively short and in some ways low key inaugural speech. He delivered it well and it had several fine lines in it, but I don’t anticipate it being played endlessly in every elementary school in America. It’s more important that we actually improve our public schools (something this administration is claiming to be serious about) than it is to play speeches in them. It’s clear to me that our new basketball playing President didn’t take the opening tip and go in for the spinning-double-pumping- oratorical slam dunk.

Since one of my goals in the next, hopefully, eight years is to play basketball with the President (his brother in law is the head coach at Oregon State), I’m going to indulge in a couple basketball stories. While he’s mostly known for mountain biking and trumping up weapons of mass destruction evidence, George W. Bush also played basketball at one time. Ron Suskind tells a story that ex-President (I love the sound of that) Bush played on an intra-mural team while he was at Harvard Business School (as I understand it one of the few things he showed up for regularly there) and wound up guarding the other team’s best player. Recognizing that he was outmatched, the young future oil entrepreneur took to simply slugging his opponent. This being Harvard and a vaguely gentlemanly place even on the basketball court, they didn’t throw George W. Bush out of the game and more to the point the other guy just didn’t have it in him to slug back (one of those two wrongs don’t make a right just a right winger things). As they say, sports doesn’t build character, it reveals it. Naturally, Bush’s team won the game and the championship.

When Barack Obama started dating Michelle Robinson, her brother Craig (twice Ivy league player of the year at Princeton) decided to check her sister’s boyfriend out on the basketball court. Although Obama apparently is pretty good, I suspect that he didn’t have much of a chance to outplay Craig Robinson who’s 6’6 and was recruited by Purdue and the University of Washington in his time and who’s clearly damn good. I think it’s worth noting that this future President didn’t resort to simply hitting Craig Robinson just to win a pickup game. He apparently kept his eye on the real reason the two of them were out playing and won the bigger prize of getting Michelle Robinson’s big brother’s approval as an okay player and a good guy.

I can’t tell a Chicago basketball story without finding some way to invoke his Airness? Back when Michael Jordan was post-baseball and on his second tour of duty with the Bulls, his team came to Oakland to play the Warriors. Thanks to a work friend I barely knew, I got the opportunity to see Jordan play live. This was the year that the Bulls set an NBA record for games won in a season. The Bulls were in the middle of a long road trip. In fact, they were playing their third road game in three days. Jordan and the Bulls came out in the first three quarters looking pretty much like any NBA team. They were just good enough to keep it a game while the Warriors led by the immortal Latrell Sprewell were looking great. I did notice that every time the Bulls were in danger of falling too far off the pace, Jordan would just happen to make a play. I turned to my friend at one point and said, “I don’t know about this whole Jordan thing, he’s good but I don’t see special.”

The friend said, “NBA games have four quarters. Whatever happens in the first three don’t matter as long as you can stay close into the last five minutes.”

Sure enough, the Warriors had a three point lead going into the middle of the fourth quarter when Jordan started making a series of spectacular plays. It came down to Jordan making an unbelievable twisting layup to put the Bulls ahead. Sprewell came back and missed a short jumper. Jordan then hit more or less the same short jumper in the lane to make it a two basket lead. Once I saw all four quarters of the game, I understood a whole lot better. Jordan was Jordan because he basically willed his team to win that game. It wasn’t so much that he carried the team at the end. It was more that he forced the other Bulls to keep the team in the game with minimal contributions from their star so that he’d have the energy to show up at the moment that mattered.

President Obama’s call for an America built on fairness and an America that faces and takes on challenges feels a lot like that Bulls game. The presidency is a four year office. You don’t win the game in the first quarter of an NBA game, but you can lose it. Just as he handled the debates, he did not go for the knockout punch so much as he appeared to be making sure that he’ll be around and in a position to win when it’s all on the line. In addition, if a guy in a basketball game hits four three pointers and makes three dunks in the first quarter it often results in his team relaxing and expecting their star to do it all. By toning it down, I suspect the President was trying to remind us that our ultimate success depends on us as much as it depends on anything he does or doesn’t do as President.

The various crises facing America are serious and President Obama is telling us pretty clearly that the war on terror, the economic crisis, the environment are “team sports”. The last thing he wants is to send the message that he’s the star or the saviour.

I believe it takes a certain amount of wisdom to make a move like this. He’s not claiming to have a singular brilliant idea or move to the basket that’s going to rescue America and the world. I believe he’s carving out the necessary space to fail a little before he has the chance to engineer a genuinely successful Presidency. My guess is that he’s been studying FDR pretty carefully. People forget that the New Deal wasn’t a runaway success straight out of the gate (see Schechter vs. the United States). What was a success almost immediately, was FDR’s capacity to use the radio as a medium for letting Americans know that everyone in America mattered to the New Deal and that everyone was expected to contribute and sacrifice.

Anyway, my current identified dream is to get on the court with President Obama. In order to do that, my take is that this captain expects me to show my commitment and willingess to work for the team. He’s not going to magically grant me playing time say the way Alberto Gonzales got on team Bush. It’s the way it should be. I’d even take an oath to faithfully uphold that proposition.



At 1/21/2009 12:58:00 PM, Blogger Jenny Jenny Flannery said...

I found out my daughter (in first grade) didn't watch the inauguration at school. I was slightly miffed until I listened to it again and realized there's not much in there for elementary school kids and they were better off sticking to the lesson plan. Besides, she told me that they "were done with presidents in November."

At 1/21/2009 01:09:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Yeah, I was in Kindergarten during the JFK inauguration I think....We were doing well if we knew that there'd been an election and something called a President.

At 1/21/2009 09:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an IT person at a large school district, I watched the inauguration courtesy of in a multi-use room of a school with the entire student body. After the oath, the K & 1 classes left and the rest listened to the address.

They were quiet for the entire time, which I found remarkable, and they clapped more than the teachers!

At 1/21/2009 11:06:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Did the kids notice the bit with the oath and President Obama going momentarialy silent when Chief Justice Roberts scrambled the words?

At 1/24/2009 07:35:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

I hope you realize your dream to play with the Prez and then have him guest blog about it!

At 1/24/2009 09:35:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

you think Obama guest blogging here would help my traffic a little?
Since I used to be involved in school reform stuff in Chicago at times, I've wondered if I might have crossed paths with him back in the nineties.

At 2/08/2009 06:52:00 PM, Blogger Ayrdale said...

I always like the appeal to service that JFK articulated, but have always found "...ask not" very clunky.
What would've been wrong with "don't ask..." ?
I much prefer his declaration on freedom.
(Greetings from mid-summer NZ !)

At 2/10/2009 06:14:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

now that it's 48 years later, it seems even more archaic. It was still a great speech.


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