A gloomy ending and a hopeful beginning in D.C.

The Baltimore Sun

There is a maxim that raises the hackles of most people. It is this: All things end badly. Who wants to believe that? It's so grim, so lacking in uplift, such a bummer of an observation that once, when I mentioned this to a young woman whose mother had just died of a wasting disease, she recoiled in shock and said, "That's not true," rejecting the notion of bad endings even while experiencing the pain of significant loss firsthand. The departure of George W. Bush and his not-so-merry band from executive power in Washington is further evidence of things ending badly, especially when contrasted with the widespread euphoria greeting the man who replaced him yesterday as president.

Leaders wear out their welcome even in the best of circumstances, and Bush the Younger neither enjoyed the best of circumstances nor seemed capable of creating more favorable ones. Most of us - excepting the stubborn 26 percent who approve of the job he did - grew tired of Bush-speak in its unbearable awkwardness. There are a number of Web sites consisting of collections of "Bushisms." The man is a master of gibberish, like this word jumble he threw out last month talking about the current financial meltdown: "So I analyzed that and decided I didn't want to be the president during a depression greater than the Great Depression, or the beginning of a depression greater than the Great Depression." Right.

Beginnings are exciting. What's more uplifting than the birth of your child? Entropy may be unavoidably the fate of all things - even mountains crumble given enough geological time - but every new life, human, animal or plant, shows us that nature, God, the cosmos, whatever you want to call the mysterious reality of which we are conscious but cannot fully comprehend, counters decay with exuberance. Life persists here on Planet Earth, even though it may not exist anywhere else in the unimaginably vast universe.

What we're witnessing in the four days of inaugural celebration is a political analogue to the concept above, one heightened by the fact, so giddying to many Americans and others around the world, that Barack Obama, the new president, is a black man. All previous American presidents have been white men. So when the media trumpet the Obama inauguration and presidency as being "historic," it's absolutely true. The mold has been broken. New possibilities lie ahead for minorities and, thanks to Hillary Clinton's near-miss in her presidential candidacy, for women as well. The United States is now undeniably, for better or worse, a multicultural nation.

In presidential beginnings, there is a period called the honeymoon, a time of possibilities, of cutting the new leader some slack and of legislators acting favorably on the new leader's initiatives. Excitement runs high. This is a time of opportunity, and Barack Obama, it is widely thought, will have a longer period of grace that most of his 43 predecessors, blessed as he is by media backing and a Democrat majority in both the House and Senate. We wonder what he will do with it. We wonder, in fact, what can be done to counter the cascading debt debacle. We're in the midst of the largest economic collapse in history, which is the unavoidable result of the post-World War II years being the time of the greatest economic growth in history. As the old song says, "You can't have one without the other."

There is also the matter of the American Empire, the world hegemony made possible by the military might we possess, coupled with the American dollar's lofty status as the world reserve currency. The empire is bogged down in two wars, we spend more on our armed forces than all the other nations of the world combined, yet the cost-benefit ratio seems to be increasingly negative.

As Susan Reimer pointed out in her column Monday, just about every political constituency imaginable believes it has the new president's ear. She mentions an analysis by PolitiFact that he made 510 promises in the course of his campaign. His political genius is that he has cultivated a personality that lets his supporters believe he is whatever they wish him to be. Radical leftists believe him to be in their corner, while moderates claim him for their own. As for actual conservatives, well, we've known for quite a time that nobody in power acts on our behalf. We're just spectators, waiting to see how and when this happy beginning ends.

Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is rsmith@wbal.com.

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