Today the nation’s eyes turn to the National Mall in Washington. For a century and a half, beginning with Andrew Jackson, US presidents had been sworn in on the east side of the Capitol, facing a landscape that over time became cramped — hedged in by congressional office buildings, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress. In 1981, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s, the inaugural ceremonies were shifted to the west side of the Capitol, effectively turning the broad marble terraces of the great building into a sanctuary, and the sweeping National Mall into the nave of a great open-air cathedral. The ecclesial image is apt, since the presidential inauguration is secular America’s sacred liturgy of renewal. Facing west over the Mall, the ceremony has profound resonance.
Especially now. The very landscape of this national shrine shows the conflicts that long pitted Americans against each other, and those conflicts aren’t merely history. The span of President Obama’s difficult first term has revealed how impossibly torn the American fabric was. Yet the Mall also shows the pillars of a 21st-century political order — not a past but a future, which America today celebrates.
President Obama will take the oath of office with his hand resting upon the stacked Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., but those two giants of American history would be present anyway. Lincoln, who defended the Constitution, and King, who expanded it, are the two high priests of the nation’s civic faith. King’s holiday today and the acclaim for Steven Spielberg’s current film “Lincoln” are living reminders of these two figures’ timeless stature.
Yet they, more than any others, also define the Mall, the holy ground across which the day’s high-flown words and music will soar. Nearly two miles to the west, Lincoln’s marble figure, enthroned in a sacrificial temple, presides over what, once paired with King’s “I have a dream speech,” became the axis of American aspiration.
The Mall is part of an arc that is anchored at its distant end across the Potomac by Arlington House, the home of Robert E. Lee, whose estate is hallowed now by the national cemetery. Memorial Bridge defines the line from Lee to Lincoln; rejoining Virginia to Washington, D.C., the bridge is itself a symbol of reconciliation. During the Civil War, the Mall was a rough-and-tumble military encampment, clustered around the half-finished Washington Monument. During World War I, its margins were defined — some said defiled — by “temporary” buildings of the war bureaucracy that stood for half a century. Now pristine memorials of America’s wars amount to side altars, while the museums of art and history enshrine what the wars were said to be fought for.
Nothing defined Jacqueline Kennedy’s aesthetic genius more than her insistence that President Kennedy be buried on the Lee-Lincoln-Washington axis, which now glows at night with JFK’s eternal flame, just below the Lee mansion. At its far opposite end, well east of the Capitol, the sacred alignment is tied to a stadium named for Robert F. Kennedy. Thus, sacrificial martyrdom is a recurring theme here, but so is criticism of sacred violence. When Americans want to oppose their government’s holy wars, this is where they come.
Today, the rivalries and dissensions of politics are put aside for a few hours, but they are put in context, too. In the United States, civic moral coherence is not accomplished by uniformity, but by a constitutional structure of balanced powers and checked factions that allows for potent disagreement. Conflict is rooted in a multiplicity of values that is itself essential to democracy. The breakdown of that structure is civil war, and the unforgotten 19th century trauma commemorated so vividly on the Mall remains the nation’s great caution.
On the Mall four years ago, Americans could imagine that a new leader would actually heal the divisions that rend this society, and each citizen could project a distinctive program of renewal on the untested administration. Hope seemed as real as it was unlimited. But hope, again, has been chastened by our acrimonious recent history. Obama, too, is subject to the limits of the human condition.
Given these conflicts, the African-American president’s second election may surpass for historic significance his first. Hope tested is hope strengthened. As Obama himself has insisted from the start, our divisions are not the nation’s weakness, but its strength. Now, perhaps, he really begins.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.