Alex Massie

A Young Nation Rises Again

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In many respects this was a deeply traditional inauguration speech. It didn't reach the heights of Obama's "Jeremiah Wright" speech in Philadelphia, but it didn't need to and was, in any case, an address given to a very different kind of occasion. The Wright speech was interesting, not merely because of how Obama addressed the controversy, but because of what it told us about how he thinks. This, by contrast, was a grander, more formal affair. Less personal and so less interesting.

But it didn't need to be a perfect speech. Nor did it matter much that it wasn't. It did more than enough to get the job done; what mattered was the identity of the man delivering the address.

 

Almost all American elections are fought upon the premise that there's something rotten in Washington and that the country needs the adrenaline of change to move forward towards its ever-more perfect union. The idea of that journey towards a better, brighter future - a conceit that has seeped deep into the American psyche - demands Presidents insist, even as the United States ages, that she remains a young nation.

This belief in the strapping vitality of youth persists even though the United States is now rather older than most countries. But the youth, or more precisely, the Idea of Youth is important. It means it is never too late to change course and start afresh. Remove that belief and you strike at the heart of America's conception of itself. Old countries are set in their ways, condemned to live with the consequences of their past mistakes; young countries have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start afresh, casting off the shackles of history in search of a sunnier future. It's that can-do American spirit that has so often been a wonder of the world.

No wonder each election offers America a mulligan. After the last eight years you can see why the country would embrace that opportunity. And so while Obama acknowledged concerns about American decline (in a deliberately sober, even downbeat opening) that was merely a means of stressing that it doesn't have to be this way. This is America folks and we can do anything. (Cynics "fail to understand... that the ground has shifted beneath them". Perhaps the speech, complete with its nod to "non-believers", wasn't as inclusive as all that: no room for bloggers at the Obama Arms...)

Yet sometimes even the cynics are wrong, or their cynicism at least misplaced. Obama's election is a proof of progress, a reminder in and of itself that the United States is in most important respects a better, kinder, gentler, more civilised, equal place than it was 40 years ago. (The same might be said, for that matter, of Britain too). What does the idea of decline even mean in such a context?

Obama's victory doesn't end that journey, nor does it grant him immunity from scrutiny or armour-plate him against criticism. But only a churl could have watched this afternoon's ceremony and not wished the United States well under its new, interesting, intelligent, curious and, yes, youthful President.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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