A new standard-bearer

On a frigid but powerfully historic day in the nation's capital, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama pulled off a dazzling trifecta Tuesday.

He seized the role of standard-bearer for a new generation of Americans, summoning them forth into "a new era of responsibility" in which service to fellow humankind is "the price and the promise of citizenship."

He declared to the world that this nation's ideals and bedrock values are back in place, that "America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more."

Above all, he provided a much-needed lift to a restive, weary nation longing to be led to a renewal of the American spirit.

His inaugural address, beautifully written by Obama himself, was pitch-perfect as the first words on the first day of the country's first African-American president. He didn't flinch from the subject of race, referring once to "the lash of the whip" and to the African village where his father was born, but his speech skillfully transcended Americans' differences, affirming instead our "unity of purpose over conflict and discord."

In keeping with a unifying trademark of Obama speeches, he assiduously avoided personal pronouns. The inaugural address did not include a single "me" or "myself," but there was a lot of "we," "us" and "our."

His stirring oratory was the crown jewel of a day studded with unforgettable grace notes. Foremost was the spectacle and majesty of America's peaceful transfer of power — always impressive at presidential inaugurations, but perhaps never more so than Tuesday's. Outgoing President George W. Bush earned praise and gratitude for making an extra effort to ensure a smooth transition.

Obama did his part, too. Images of him and first lady Michelle Obama walking George and Laura Bush to their helicopter and saying their goodbyes there, another first for an inauguration, were especially poignant.

The record-shattering crowd on the Capitol Mall, more than a million people on a clear, freezing day, was an amazing force in itself — enormous, jubilant and overwhelmingly peaceful.

Even the slight flub during the presidential oath, when Chief Justice John Roberts got a phrase out of order and Obama paused awkwardly before Roberts repeated it correctly, provided a nice human touch. When the two most powerful figures in the United States stumble in such fashion, what can be more reaffirming to the notion that we all need each other in this country?

America's new president made that point with considerable eloquence Tuesday. "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit," he declared, to the "amens" of a ready nation.

Throughout its history, the United States has produced strong leaders at times of crisis and uncertainty. Tuesday's pageantry and powerful oratory, resplendent in the connective tissue of history, elevated hope that President Obama will measure up to the awesome task.

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