I only dimly remember the cold, rainy day in April 1968, when I clutched my father's hand as we marched slowly in a somber throng of people through the streets of north Minneapolis. At the time, as a 6-year-old boy, I had little understanding of what we were doing -- banding together as a family with our fellow citizens in a sense of shared grief over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
I didn't understand much better a year later when my parents came home with an African-American baby and announced she was my new adopted sister. (I was just overwhelmed by how cute she was.)It took me years to realize what was going on. My parents -- a middle-class white couple from the Midwest --were doing their part to keep Dr. King's dream alive. That dream, in large measure, was realized Tuesday, when Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States.
In his inaugural address, Obama noted the historic nature of the occasion: "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."
But Obama also noted that this is a key moment in the history of the federal government. "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small," he said, "but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account -- to spend wisely, reform bad habits and do our business in the light of day -- because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."
Those words echoed what Obama said a little more than a week before the inauguration, in a speech unveiling his massive economic stimulus plan: "It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment . . . only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy."
This is Obama's moment, and a signal moment in the nation's history. But even if only because there is nowhere else to turn, this also is government's moment.