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WASHINGTON — A great platform is being built on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. Along Pennsylvania Ave., the bleachers are going up. And in front of the White House the heated, enclosed reviewing stand is nearing completion for the new president of the United States, his aides and the members of his family.
The world has changed (9-11, Iraq) and not-so-changed (Gaza) since the day, eight years ago, that George W. Bush took the oath of office. There are high expectations here, now that change has come again.
A new administration makes everyone a foreign correspondent, for a time. As Barack Obama takes the oath of office at the Capitol, a small army of packers and movers will drive vans up the curved driveway at the White House, and efficiently remove all traces of the Bush regime from the West Wing.
At the State Department, the Pentagon, the CIA and the other big federal agencies, where embedded bureaucracies pride themselves on outlasting administrations, change won't be so stark. But there will be new bosses, and priorities, and internal power struggles to chronicle.
I like to hope, as a GlobalPost reporter in Washington, that I will keep the fresh eyes and legs of a newly-landed foreign correspondent, and write as if I were in Moscow, Berlin or New Delhi, consumed with curiousity, and trying to decipher the politics and intrigues of a distant land.
For at least a few months, the new faces will help. Hillary at State. Biden as Veep. John Kerry on Foreign Relations. And, of course, Barack Obama — a mystery still to the country that chose him.
By way of introduction: I'm New York-born, and Southern-educated, and trained Out West and in New England. I grew up reading Mailer, Hemingway and Theodore White. And Robert Penn Warren, of course. I've been to every state but North Dakota. I've spent far too much of my life in Iowa, New Hampshire and the back rows of the White House press room. I'm a Jeffersonian in a town of Hamiltonians. And I'm Irish-American, but you probably have figured that out.
I have loved, and sometimes loathed, the American political process, but I have never found it less than fascinating — waiting, as Seamus Heaney would put it, for those too rare instances when hope and history rhyme.
Since 1980, when Ronald Reagan moved the inauguration from the eastern plaza to the flip side of the Capitol, American presidents have taken the oath of office facing West, toward our old frontier. It is a fitting shift. Inaugurations are a time of promise, and audacity and hope — never more, perhaps, than in these grim times, with America at war, its economy lamed, and a new generation taking power.
In far bleaker times, as the Nazi bombers marred the English skies, Winston Churchill took to the BBC to rally his people. One night, in April 1941, speaking of his hope that the United States would join in the battle against fascism, he read them a bit of poetry from an obscure English writer by the name of Arthur Hugh Clough.
John F. Kennedy idolized Churchill, and liked the verse, and popularized it in America. I'll think of it on Inauguration Day, and hope America meets its promise. It's aged and sentimental, but then so am I.
"And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright."