President Obama and The Power of Myth
January 22, 2009 § 6 Comments
Did tears come to your eyes, taking in the spectacle of the Inauguration of President Obama. Were you moved, taking in the pomp and pagantry, the vast crowds stretching as far as the eye could see, the speeches and songs and prayers? I admit that I teared up at points, but I’ve been fascinated to hear a range of reactions from friends. Most were “very moved.” One wondered why she wasn’t so moved, why she feltjust cautiously optimistic. One friend expressed dismay that the crowd that cheered Obama also booed Bush and Laura Bush. This showed her that a crowd can also become a mob. That observation flowed into an insight I heard from the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, that what marks Obama’s inauguration as extraordinary is the emotional connection people are making with this President. That’s what I saw on the mall: an upwelling of emotion that had to be expressed.
At some point, I remembered learning that President Obama’s mother loved “The Power of Myth,” the video series starring Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, which Parabola helped bring to the world. When I read his address in The New York Times the day after, I couldn’t help but be struck by way he assumed the role of the hero. “Could it be (and it’s a question, not an assertion) that first and foremost the hero is one who is willing to set out, take the first step, shoulder something?” wrote P.L. Travers in the inaugural issue of Parabola, which was dedicated to the hero. Travers wondered if the quest wasn’t always the same if you examined them closely. “Perhaps the myths are telling us that these endeavors are not so much voyages of discovery as of rediscoery; that the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity. And by finding this, by achieving this, he takes part in the one task, the essential, mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world. It is the long and perilous journey back from the nadir to the zenith….”
Could it be that we the people have longed to be led on a journey and here at last is a hero? This is the way Obama articulated it on that cold, bright day: “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted–for those who prefer leisure over work. or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things–some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor–who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”
He urged us to return to values that are old and true–to remember the words that the father of our nation, our first hero, had read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world that in the depths of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
In one oral history I recently read about the failures of the Bush years, insiders complained that after 9/11, people yearned to be rallied to a common cause, to remember our cherished ideals and stories, to sacrifice and strive together towards a greater goal. Bush never did. Obama ended his speech with these ringing words: “America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words [about meeting danger]. With hope and virute, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter, and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
Many commentators have talked about how carefully considered Obama’s speech was. If it didn’t soar like Kennedy’s or F.D.R.’s–if it lacked the majesty of Lincoln’s second inaugural–well, still, it hit all the right notes and covered all the bases. What I heard was President Obama taking his first step on a hero’s journey…and bracing us for the unknown. What do you think?