On the crisp, January morning that President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, I was one of a handful of journalists from the University of Virginia who piled into a car and drove to D.C. with the notion of covering this grand event. My job was to capture the color and mood of the day, and I walked right up to the outer gates of the White House (which you could still do in 1981) and interviewed some of the characters who had gathered there from all around the country, with a statement to make to anyone who would listen. To this day, I can remember how the story I wrote began: with a wallpaper hanger from New Jersey.
When it came time for the swearing-in ceremony, I blended into the crowds for a few minutes to savor a moment in history. It was a lovely day, with the rays of the sun warming the chill of the January air. Jets soared overhead as someone announced that the Iran hostages had just been freed, in a snub to Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter. For me, it was not about the politics of the day; it was about the moment.
Three decades later, another Inaugural Day dawns, and much has changed. We thought the world was complicated then, and of course, it seems only more so today. The Cold War thawed, only to have a new chill set in these last few years. We've been at war for more than a decade with a shadowy enemy, Al-Qaida. Our relationship with Iran remains difficult at best. Syria is in the middle of a civil war, and there is still no peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Still, there is much to savor about this moment, regardless of your politics. The more I follow international news, the more grateful I am to live in a country where citizens can argue and bicker for years about an election. But come Inauguration Day, a president will be peacefully sworn in. Americans will gather in Washington with placards and protests, just as they did in 1981, but they respect and abide by the electoral process.
We should be grateful for the separation of powers that our founding fathers built into the political system, which makes it impossible for any one leader to become a despot. Presidents can complain about the Supreme Court, or a do-nothing Congress, but those institutions make it impossible for a president to run roughshod over the people, or for the whims of the day to dictate law for years to come. I was reminded of the importance of the separation of powers when Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, tried to give himself authority over all the courts in Egypt last year.
As an editor, I'm also grateful for the freedom of speech and press, a freedom often taken for granted. The First Amendment of the Constitution reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble ... "
It is this amendment that allows us as Americans the freedom to express our beliefs, political and otherwise, in words, essays, columns, speeches, on blogs and on placards. We can say whatever we want about President Obama and his inauguration; we can chant outside the Capitol on a crisp January morning that America is going to pieces, and nobody will think twice. Should journalists find something corrupt about his government, they are free to print the truth as they know it, a freedom that doesn't exist in places such as China and, increasingly, Russia.
And so today, regardless of which presidential candidate you supported, it's a moment to savor the fact that we live in a free, open society, where the people, from the poorest wallpaper hanger to the wealthiest philanthropist, have the same power when they enter a voting booth, and where anybody who wants to can find a sidewalk in Washington and shout his message to the world.
Nancy Barnes is editor of the Star Tribune.