Just Ordinary Citizens: The affection we feel for outgoing presidents

On the Morning Of

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I make no apologies for the fact that my main feelings today on the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States are of affection for the outgoing 44th. Maybe it is because the Obamas are my generation (like Michelle, I was born in 1964). Maybe it is because I found my political core—apart from my parents or friends or outside expectations—during President Obama’s terms. Maybe it is because our son was not quite of voting age during the 2008 election, so I felt a sense of proxy at the voting booth—I was casting a ballot for both of us—in doing what he could not eight years ago. Maybe it is because we had a First Family in the White House with young children whom we watched grow and mature before our eyes.

Presidential families do feel like our families, too. They enter our living rooms and private spaces and, in some cases, our hearts. Our current age of partisanship, of course, taints the relationship (this post will certainly be seen as fawning and will invite some snark), but the feelings are beyond politics.

When Amy Carter moved to the White House in 1977, she was nine and I was twelve. I read every article I could about her—what she liked, where she was going to go to school, details of her daily life. I don’t remember ever feeling as though I should not be fascinated by her and her newly public life, even though I grew up in a strongly Republican household and red state. I wonder if I were in those circumstances today, would I feel more pressure to act—to feel—differently simply because the president’s politics were not those of my parents?

Harriet “Hattie” Whitcher

One of my personal projects is transcribing diaries of my great-aunt Hattie, a woman of mixed heritage who lived in a rural reservation county in South Dakota. Her diaries, which she kept every single day from 1920 through much of 1957, are filled with mundane details of weather and chores but also her impressions on national and world events, especially presidential elections and transitions (read her entry about voting for the first time in 1920). As I follow politics on Twitter and listen to podcasts (e.g., you can hear Obama’s last interview as president at Pod Save America), I imagine her sitting by her radio, her only source for real-times news, drinking in every word, perhaps taking notes to use for when she wrote in her diary.

In 1953, Hattie was 71 years old when she wrote about the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the transition from Harry S. Truman (see bottom of post for videos):

January 20, 1953, Tuesday

A few clouds but some Sunshine. Men gave cattle hay in a.m. I listened to Inaugural of Pres. Eisenhower and Truman (Harry) going out at Noon, I guess 11:30 our time. Vice-Pres. Richard Nixon of California took Barkley’s place. Mr. and Mrs. Truman, Harry, Bess and daughter Margaret left Washington in Private Car of Pres. but just ordinary citizens for their home at Independence, Missouri. Ex. Pres. Truman was [to] give farewell as Train left Washington. I guess the Cheers they gave made Mr. Truman sad at Heart, one [day] he [will not] forget if he lived to be a hundred years, which he [is] going to be. His Office will be at Kansas City. I don’t know if Mo. or Kansas. I like the 2 small Rugs in Back Porch of varied stripes while I write in diary. I rest to admire these rugs.

Her heart is with Truman and his family, now “just ordinary citizens,” as they make their way home.

Similarly, my heart and thanks are with the Obamas today.

I am also struck by the final lines of Hattie’s entry, her meditative focus on the simple beauty found in her own home, her stopping her writing to admire two small rugs, almost as a way to ground herself on this very emotional day.

Life offers us meaning and beauty in unexpected ways. Yesterday, in my work as a book indexer, I was writing an entry for Freddie Mercury, which led me to think about my favorite Queen songs. I played “Don’t Stop Me Now,” which seemed a fitting tribute to our outgoing president. I played it over and over.

Don’t stop now, Mr. Obama. See you on the other side of the presidency.

Truman’s Farewell Address
Eisenhower’s Inauguration
Post edited slightly January 21, 2017.

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