At the time of the swearing in ceremony for President Barack Obama, I was supposed to be at two different meetings. I didn’t go to either of them. Instead, I went to the OB/GYN Residents’ lounge and turned on the television to watch what will surely go down as one of the most significant events in American history. The room was completely empty, except for me, and that in itself is unusual, but the stark contrast between my solitude during the ceremony and the jubilant throng of more than a million on the Washington mall was somewhat disturbing for reasons I didn’t understand. Vaguely I sensed that it was a moment that should be shared. Indeed, my first thought was that every American should have had the opportunity to take a break from whatever they were doing and watch the ceremony and the speech that followed. Why in a country that cherishes and has worked so hard for a free and democratic society do we not make national elections and inauguration days special holidays?
The proceedings did not disappoint. Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” was moving and endearing and I will never forget the new President’s smile when she sang the last note. The quartet’s performance of the John Williams’ arrangement was nothing less than stunning – four of the world’s greatest artists, each from very different backgrounds, performing together with uncontained joy and enthusiasm. When Itzhak Perlman hit the first cord on the violin, tears instantly welled-up in my eyes and streamed down my cheeks (at that point I was quite content to be alone), something that had happened to me only once before when the violins began the opening movement of Handel’s “Messiah” while I was a member of the chapel choir at Duke University too many years ago. When the time came for the actual swearing in of the new President and everyone was asked to stand, I found myself rising to my own feet, in respect for the moment and with great sense of awe in my heart for having the opportunity to be a witness to the event.
But regardless of all that transpired before, there is no doubt in my mind that the highlight of the ceremony was the Presidential address which followed. Fully aware that the world would be focusing on every word, listening to the messages, spoken and implied, assessing his demeanor, sincerity, integrity, and forcefulness of the presentation, President Obama rose to the occasion and delivered a speech that will surely be recorded as a defining moment of his presidency and the history of the United States. He did not mince words. In a few short minutes, he reminded us of our past, where we have come from, what we have been through, what that has cost us, and what that has given us as a great nation. It was a message of challenge, it was a message of hope, and it was a message that stressed the necessity of working together, not just as a country, but as a world to preserve that same world for the generations that will follow. To me, one of the most memorable quotes came early in the speech: “…we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord…the time has come to set aside childish things…to reaffirm our enduring spirit...to choose our better history.” The message allows for people to continue believing what they want, but the hard decisions we make moving forward as a nation need to be based on critical evaluation and evidence rather than simple emotion.
I find a special hope in the President’s message and in the months of oratory that preceded the election – and that is a hope for a new emphasis on the health of women and children in this country. During the last 8 years, short-sighted policies in health care and the economic down turn have led to reduced access to care, the highest teen pregnancy rates in years, an epidemic of obesity that will affect generations to come, and great disparities in morbidity and mortality that fall clearly along socioeconomic and ethnic lines. We must invest in the health and well-being of our youngest citizens and our pregnant women if we are ever to address the containment of health care costs in the future. Untold millions of dollars wasted on “abstinence only” education programs must be redirected to early and ongoing educational efforts that emphasize the importance of responsible family planning and means of pregnancy prevention before an individual is prepared to be a good parent. Regular physical, health, and nutritional education need to be brought back into our schools. Such an approach will lay the foundation for a healthier America; a country with citizens who feel better about themselves will also feel more confident and better about the future of their country and will be in a much better position to contribute to its success. I may be an idealist, but these things are possible and I think we have a new President who has the foresight and aptitude to give us a fresh start on our future.