When Aretha Franklin took the stage in her stunning church crown at this morning’s momentous Obama inagural, a line from a Steely Dan song involuntarily popped into my head: “Hey 19, that’s ‘retha Franklin. She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.”
Yet here I was, at Ground Zero coffee shop on the USC campus, jammed in with hundreds of 19-year-olds and their ilk who were not merely remembering, they were experiencing firsthand -- grooving right along to Ms. Franklin’s ardent rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
Not only that, they applauded enthusiastically for veep Joe Biden, cheered first lady Michelle Obama and – many of them – stood in silent reverence for SCOTUS chief John Robert’s fumbling swearing in of Barack Obama, the 44th person and the first African American to be U.S. president. After it was all over, they cheered some more. Some embraced. A few teared up. All for a bunch of people more than twice their age. “This is so awesome,” the young lady sitting next to me told her pal.
Jubilance, exuberance, reverence. So different from my own teenage experience of presidential politics. The moment that sticks with me is sitting in class at St. Ignatius College Prep on Chicago’s near West Side and hearing an announcement over the public address system that President Reagan had been shot. Some of my classmates cheered. No one seemed terribly concerned. Reagan was a popular president. Lots of people liked him. But my classmates and I didn't much care. We were all subjected to a stern scolding, and a letter was sent home to parents asking them to reinforce the message. I don’t think that changed many minds.
Today, the minds they are a-changing.
The Ground Zero coffee shop had been requistioned by the Unruh Institute of Politics and the Annenberg School for Communication, where I’m teaching reporting this semester. There were rows of chairs and sofas, a large-screen TV, and a buffet of coffee and breakfast burritos.
But organizers had clearly underestimated student interest in the event. By the time I arrived at 8:30 a.m., organizers were instructing a security guard stationed at the door to redirect newcomers to an alternate viewing site. “I don’t think the faculty thought so many of us would be willing to get up at 8 in the morning,” one of my students, who was turned away, observed. None of my students had ever watched an inauguration before. "I didn't even know when they were happening," one student said. "I'm going to pay closer attention from now on."
I was interested to hear the students’ thoughts about Obama’s contention that there is “a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.” First, a caveat: my students are all undergraduate journalism majors. That, in and of itself, requires no small degree of confidence that the future will be brighter than the present.
Their responses to Obama’s statement? They interpreted it as a call to action and responsibility, a need to be tough and work hard, which they said they are more than willing to do. “We just need to be realistic and not think only of ourselves,” one student told me. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to accomplish any less.”
Did the notion of thinking of anyone other than myself cross my mind even once when I was in college? If it did, I can’t remember it.
Clearly, Obama can’t change America on his own, but at least a few USC students seem to have heard the message, and appear ready to heed the call.
*Apparently the "awesomes" have it at the LA Times, too (see story on lower left of today's front page).