The Capitol statuary hall was filled with the leaders of the land, some seated and awaiting lunch, other standing larger than life in marble. A gentle wash of language drifted up to the gilded and painted ceilings as they all bided their time, waiting for the moment. Then, on cue, the doorman barked, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States!” A door made small by the moment opened, and Barack Obama marched out. The Marine Band struck up “Hail to the Chief”, the President’s own song. It was Obama’s moment, it was his song, and all those leaders were now his.
That was when the day became real for me. Up until then every moment was somehow its own, every word suited to the occasion. But here, with all the trappings of the ages, he still commanded. It really did happen. It wasn’t just a fairy tale.
This is a strange thing to have to admit, I realize. It’s not as though we didn’t have the rituals up until this point, especially when he raised his right arm to take the oath. That’s how we tell the world that the special miracle of our nation, the peaceful transfer of power, quietly happened again. But it’s when the leader picks up all the trappings that you know it’s no longer just about this person we either selected or didn’t last November. This is about something else – the Presidency, the office, the hopes and dreams of the nation.
The Marine Band is part of the myth that makes it all real to us and reminds us that someone really is in charge of things. But myth isn’t exactly the right word to describe the trappings of power and the symbols of a people united. As Bruno Bettelheim says in his wonderful examination of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, “Myths are by nature pessimistic, but fairy stories are optimistic.” They contain a passage of sorts, and end on a moral that is a lesson learned. Because we regard these fairy tales as children’s stories, many people would consider it an insult to say that this is what the USofA is really all about, but our optimism and desire to learn from our mistakes makes us a fairy tale people in many ways.
The last President that people felt so strongly about was, of course, Kennedy. After his death, Jacqueline Kennedy said that she hoped it would be remembered like the song, as “One great shining moment” – and the myth of Camelot was born. But it wasn’t a myth, it was always a fairy tale, a glittering image that dazzled and led us from one era to another. We wound up deep into the woods for a while, under a cloud of division and unrest. But perhaps we’ve found our way back out to Grandma’s House and taken the moral to heart.
Our nation isn’t a fairy tale, of course, but fairy tales are the kind of myth that illuminate it and make it real. They allow us to understand what’s happening around us even as it becomes more complex with time. The 300 million people who live closer each day need their own mental space and their own emotional development to be able to handle it. That’s how fairy tales help kids grow up and that’s how they are a key part of a nation that is forever young and ready for new challenges.
There, among the statues, wiser men still look over us as icons of wisdom and great courage. The hall is there to make myths and forge the identity of a nation that will always have an identity crisis of one kind or another. While the Founding Fathers wanted us to have the myths that would allow us to preserve their works, they didn’t count on our constant need for fairy stories. Perhaps they’d look down on us and scoff, telling us to grow up. It doesn’t matter. The Marine Band in their bright uniforms and stellar performance will always have the look and sound of enchantment about them. This is a good thing. We are an enchanted people.