My Turn: Remembering 2009: an inauguration like no other


 By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Depending on your political perspective, January 20 was the dawning of a new conservative era in the U.S. or the onset of a four-year reign that could redefine our democracy in uncertain terms.

For supporters of the president-elect, it was a day of unbridled celebration, punctuated by speech-making, merriment, and political promises that will be hard to keep.

Eight years ago, the nation was on the eve of sweeping political change as well, but then ushered in by an Ivy League-educated U.S. Senator who was destined to break the color barrier that had been erected around the Oval Office for more than two centuries.

It was a “wall” that had not served the nation well, excluding those of black

or brown skin tones who longed – and were eminently qualified – to lead a world super power. The electorate’s willingness to embrace diversity – not once, but twice – over the last 8 years, demonstrated a desire to make a nation “great again,” to borrow a catch phrase.

For 94-year-old Judge Damon J. Keith, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, thoughts of this year’s Inauguration ceremony undoubtedly will cause him to reflect on the power of the 2009 experience in Washington, D.C., when a record crowd assembled for a “New Birth of Freedom,” which served as the inaugural theme to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

The theme, of course, was built around a phrase from the Gettysburg Address, and expressed ideals about renewal, continuity, and national unity. In 2009, the then president-elect stressed the need for “shared sacrifice” and a “new sense of responsibility to answer America’s challenges at home and abroad.”

The 2009 event, unlike many previous inaugurations, was orchestrated to encourage greater participation among ordinary citizens, as organizers opened the entire length of the National Mall as the public viewing area for the swearing-in ceremony.

Also for the first time, thanks to the generosity of a philanthropist, a “People’s Inaugural Ball” for the disadvantaged was held for those who otherwise would be unable to afford to attend the gala festivities. Relatedly, a first-ever “Neighborhood Inaugural Ball” also took place with free or nominally priced tickets for ordinary citizens.

In short, it was an event designed to connect rich and poor, black and white, blue collar and white collar.

That day, January 20, 2009, the soon-to-be 44th president of the United States was about to inherit an economy that was in shambles. The housing market was in the tank, the nation’s lending capacity was nearly frozen, and the average American household had lost a third of its net worth in less than three years. Internationally, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still raging, and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was still on the loose.

In other words, it was less than a fine time to be president.

Still, for millions of Americans, the presidency of Barack Obama represented hope – for a more inclusive country and for renewed economic stability.

Judge Keith, a Detroit native, was there with his granddaughter, Camara, soaking up the historic occasion from a special vantage point. As such, they soon found themselves being interviewed on “The Larry King Live” show as the inaugural festivities unfolded. It is a YouTube classic titled, “The Moment that Made Me Weep.”

“My granddaughter accompanied me to President Obama’s inauguration and she was being interviewed on the street when she asked that they also talk with me about what his election meant to me,” Judge Keith recalled.

“I told them that I was privileged to be part of three momentous occasions,” he noted. “In 1990, I was asked by Mayor (Coleman) Young to introduce Nelson Mandela when he appeared at Tiger Stadium. I also was in attendance for Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, when he delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. And, as I was telling them about being present for the President’s inauguration, I was overcome with emotion. I could barely get the words out about what it meant to me and countless others who have been involved in the civil rights struggle. It was a moment that was hard to put into words, but I was glad that I was able to get a few out.”

Now, as a new commander in chief prepares to take center stage, the federal jurist will reserve the right to offer an altogether different political perspective, hoping that a presidency built around bravado and bombast will not make the nation weep.