Americans ready to answer Obama's call to serve


The mobilised energy of the presidential campaign is being translated into active citizenship, writes Elaine Byrne

I WONDER what Barack Obama thought about when he looked out the window of his train last Saturday. The Obama Express travelled the 135-mile journey to Washington via Philadelphia’s 30th Street station collecting vice-president-elect Joe Biden at Wilmington, Delaware.

When I looked out my window on much the same Amtrak route on Sunday, America was covered by an ocean of snow which disappeared by the time our train rolled into Washington’s Union Station. The train conductors called this Dr Zhivago land, and spoke loudly to one another about how America’s generation had changed, but would that mean that America would too?

Our train journey began with a sacred smudging of eagle’s wings and sage by D, a Native American of the Navaho people from Window Rock, Arizona. This purification ceremony was preceded by a blessing by Brother Anthony from Co Limerick’s Glenstal Abbey.

The travelling group of 103 Democratic Party activists did not fall into recognisable categories of political activists.

There was Richard Gayer, for example, who wrapped up a prized Washington train ticket in an Obama logo and put it in a Christmas stocking for his wife Celia. Or David, the nudist, who tested his improvised catheter on the nine-hour train journey. This “ingenious device”, as he described it, will ensure that he will not lose his place among the millions anticipated to stand today in freezing temperatures at the National Mall for Obama’s inauguration address. (He will avoid the inconvenience of having to find a toilet.)

Rowland Scherman, retired photographer at Lifemagazine and creator of Bob Dylan’s iconic blue, black and white greatest hits album cover, was excited about returning to Washington.

It was John F Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” inauguration speech in 1961 that motivated him to volunteer as a photographer for Kennedy’s Peace Corps initiative. His celebrated photographs are exhibited today at the JFK Presidential Museum in Boston.

Dmitri’s black father and white mother separated when he was a baby. Still in his 20s, Dmitri voted for the first time at the 2008 presidential election. He could not explain exactly why he felt he had to be in Washington for the inauguration. “I don’t know. It’s a solidarity thing. It’s a singular moment. I just wanna be a part of it.”

Pat Scanlon, a Vietnam veteran of 1969, was certain why he was travelling. “I’ve waited for this day since Vietnam,” he said. Scanlon still remembers the day when a high school kid asked him how many bombs he dropped in Vietnam.

Bonny McIntosh, now a social worker for Iraqi veterans, served a tour of duty in Baghdad and shares Scanlon’s anger about the Iraq war. “We were here before.”

Hundreds of thousands of Americans will make the journey to Washington today to bear witness to the inauguration ceremony of the 44th president of the United States. That’s what this is all about. The journey. We might not know exactly what we are looking for, but at least we are looking for something. This is what Obama now has come to represent – the perpetual journey as revealed in the opening quotation from the Book of Chronicles in his autobiographical narrative, Dreams from my Father: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.”

This American journey of self-discovery was kick-started yesterday by Obama’s national call to serve – his Renew America Together initiative, which coincided with the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King jnr.

In the basketball court at the Ballou Senior High School in downtown Washington, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, spoke to a packed house of young volunteers, repeating his father’s words: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.”

It was more than special to hear King’s son speak about his father the day before his father’s dream is to become a reality.

Service Nation, a grassroots movement to expand community and voluntary service, organised an impressive array of stars and politicians to promote the concept of public service.

Spider-Manactor Tobey Maguire broke down in tears after the American civil rights movement leader and legendary Georgia Congressman John Lewis grabbed the hearts of the predominantly young audience. To a standing ovation he roared: “We are going down a road. We are on a journey.” (This writer was glad when Lewis finished his boisterous speech; the top rung of the worn wooden seating was shaking with the echo of his voice.)

Public service has the ears of bipartisan politics. The secretary of education designate, Arne Duncan, and the first lady of California, Maria Shriver Kennedy, were among those who spoke a language that Ireland has forgotten.

Direction. Participation. Duty. Citizenship. Belief. Spirit.

It wasn’t all about talk. Senators Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch launched the cross-party Serve America Act initiative yesterday. The Bill seeks to expand formal volunteering opportunities.

After the speeches, we followed an African-American marching band down King Avenue to Simon Elementary School to paint the school walls. The mobilised political energy of the Obama presidential campaign is being formally translated into a broader concept of active citizenship. Obama, born the same year that Kennedy delivered his inauguration speech which inspired the establishment of the Peace Corps, is today emulating the ideals of JFK.

How will Obama’s inauguration speech compare to Kennedy’s? Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sounded a note of caution about blind positivity towards Obama when I met him last week. An occasional Irish Timesreader, Chomsky described Obama as a marketing brand and noted that his presidential campaign beat the Apple Company for the best marketing campaign of 2008 in the annual advertising awards. Chomsky was circumspect about the possibilities for real democratic change.

We’ll enjoy Inauguration Day nonetheless, but at 4.30pm today spare a thought for the words of the democratic programme of the first Dáil. “We affirm the duty of every man and woman to give allegiance and service . . . and declare it is the duty of the Nation to assure that every citizen shall have opportunity to spend his or her strength and faculties in the service of the people. In return for willing service, we, in the name of the Republic, declare the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour.”

These words are 90 years old tomorrow, but many Irish people will hear them reverberate for the first time today.