LOS ANGELES --- The best comment on President Obama's Inaugural speech came from another guy from Jersey City, William Gavin, once a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon:
"The speech was, in fact, low-key and earnest rather than inspiring, in the oratorical sense. ... But the setting -- the first African-American standing there in the bright winter sunshine as our new president -- had an eloquence all its own. He could have stood there for 20 minutes of silence and still communicated great things about America."
The 44th president obviously made a decision to project the number and complexity of the challenges he and we, the people, are facing these days, beginning with a fading economy and losing wars. The speech struck me as a mini-State of the Union Address, a laundry list touching all the bases. Unfortunately, the address that reverberated in my head was President Gerald Ford's message on Jan. 15, 1975, in which he said:
"I must say to you that the state of the union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow. This year's federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year's probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion. Our plant capacity and productivity are not increasing fast enough. We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual."
Ford's numbers and the problems of that January past sound like a walk in the park this January. But we survived then, and we will now.
And somehow great things are on our minds and in our hearts this time. What a tribute this is to the man in the arena.
Yes, there was something for everyone this past Tuesday. Pray we can hold the glow!
What there was for me was what Obama had to say about science, or even the fact that he mentioned science at all. One of the most destructive things about the know-nothing nature of the Bush administration, that determined anti-intellectualism in the White House, was the disdain the 43rd president and his men had for science and scientific method. Whether it was climate change, evolution or medical revolution, George W. Bush seemed not only to know nothing about it, he did not want to know about it. He and the rest of them loved the phrase "junk science," but they knew more about junk than about science.
So I, for one, was thrilled and a little surprised when the crowds cheered after the new president said: "We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs." And then: "We will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet."
I do not know how much Obama knows about science, or even if he saw it as little more than a handy way to dramatize the failings of his predecessor. Remember 2002, when Bush's own Environmental Protection Agency supported some theories about global warming and the president dismissed it with: "I read the report put out by the bureaucracy."
Whatever he thought of it, does anyone believe Bush actually read it?
I also wonder whether Obama read all the promises issued in his name during the campaign. By one count -- in Popular Mechanics magazine -- he made more than 100 pledges relating to science and technology, not including questions of health and health care.
The specifics are not the point, at least right now. The point was made in the Inaugural speech: We have a president who says he intends to restore science to its rightful place.
Science is one of government's most important responsibilities and that involves more than making smarter bombs and drones. Looking back, it could be argued that scientific advancement was the biggest government story of the 20th century. In the United States, that advance was in public health, from clean water to discovering treatments for tuberculosis. That is why we live so much longer these days, which of course is why the government created Social Security and Medicare.
Whatever one thinks of "big government," we live in an era of "big science." Only so much can be accomplished now by one person and a blackboard or a few test tubes. It seems that our new president understands that, which is "change," a change for the better.