The year 2008 was an election year and before it was over, I would step away from a thirty-six-year career in public administration. Looking forward to doing many new things, I occasionally questioned the timing of my retirement and had some trepidation about adapting to the significant changes that lie ahead, fearful it would change who I am. We were deep into the Presidential election process and, in late spring, the economy was becoming a concern to most people in the country. After eight years of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the public seemed ready for a change and I assumed it would be Hillary Clinton. She had history and now Senatorial experience where she seemed adept at reaching across the aisle. Many people saw her as the smartest and most committed Clinton in the White House and there was no doubt in my mind that she would be elected our next President. Also, electing the first female president is still an important milestone for my generation. Then came the 2008 Iowa Caucus, not something that I gave much credence to. It was still not significant in the overall scheme of things until Barack Obama, a young senator from Illinois won the caucus, which afforded him the opportunity to speak on a national stage. From that point and throughout the next few months, my personal and political experiences would be about change.
I have heard political speeches for decades. They all cover the usual issues and hit upon the partisan biases of the day. They also provide a platform for politicians to inject the most powerful tools at their disposal: hope and fear. Hope is hit or miss, difficult to effectively pull off, but fear works every time. It gets their attention quickly and is welcomed justification for the anger some feel, trying to survive in a difficult, stressful society. Hope, on the other hand, is more risky, but when it works it can drive people to change. For any leader, hope can bestow reverent power, the kind given by the people because they believe in you. We went to the moon and back in 1969 because John Kennedy, years earlier, told us that we could do it and we believed him. Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt led us through difficult times because people believed in them. I admired that Barack Obama was following the path of change and hope, but also remembered that it can be an obstacle for most people. Electing the first African-American president was still a milestone for my generation. So I thought.
Words are just words, but I saw something in Barack Obama during his Iowa victory speech that I hadn’t seen in forty years, someone who could unite our country and, maybe, the world. I had thought that a relatively inexperienced African-American man named Barack Hussein Obama could not be elected as President of the United States, but from the 2008 Iowa speech, I began to comprehend what the excitement was all about. He truly had the power of hope and the potential to make Americans and the world believe in America again. Our household was politically divided during the primaries, my wife, sticking with Hillary and me defecting to Obama. “I like him,” Karen said, “but Hillary is more electable and she’s a woman.” I responded, “I know, I will vote for her in November, but this guy could be one in a generation.” Karen was retiring in June 2008 from a teaching career and was beginning to worry about her 401K. She protested, “Greed always overcomes reason.”
Daily reports about the evolving economic crisis in the national housing market seemed to coincide with the announcement of my October retirement in April 2008. We had some big and significant projects ahead of us and some colleagues suggested that I reconsider and “work until the storm clears.” They still hadn’t realized that the merry-go-round never stops and it’s up to each of us to decide when to step off. With college expenses behind us, I had hope that the country would eventually fix our economic ills. The world was counting on it.
Karen and I had talked about going somewhere fairly soon after my last day in the office. We talked about Paris or London, somewhere to celebrate and to de-compress. At dinner one evening, we discussed our options and the words of a speech that resonated with us forty years prior somehow came up. The basis of the speakers remarks were that the two things most difficult for people were accepting change and maintaining hope. Karen suggested that we include them as our retirement model. “Ya’ know,” she said, “the dollar sucks right now, we should stay U.S. and go see some history or to places that inspire us.” “Good idea, but we don’t have much time to pull it together,” I responded, giving praise but evoking a sense of urgency. I was not in retirement mode yet, but maybe planning this trip would help with the transition. We both soon knew where it would begin.
The economy was bad and would get much worse before it would start to get better. The commonly used phase of the day was “too big to fail.” It had to change or we were going to experience the difficult childhood of our parents. In late August, an apparent act of desperation, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate announced the nomination of Sarah Palin for Vice-President and within a few weeks, it was over. We would most likely elect the first African-American president, an act that, in itself, represented both change and hope.
Feeling nostalgic, I was drawn back to JFK, listening repeatedly to his January 1961 Inaugural address from an old CD that I purchased at the Dallas Book Depository gift shop, ironically on the same day JFK, Jr. was killed in a small plane crash. The speech began, “We observe today, not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.” They were appropriate and comforting words for all that was happening in my life.
Our calendar was clear. Less than forty-eight hours after I left my office for the last time on October 1, we were on a plane bound for JFK airport in New York City and after a brief layover, boarded a short flight to Logan International Airport in Boston, where we spent our first night. The next morning, we picked up a rental car and headed north on Highway 91 toward Vermont; there was no time to waste. Connecting to Highway 89 in Woodstock, we headed northwest and would be in Stowe within a few hours. We arrived just as the leaves were turning, vividly painted across the horizon, a natural, magnificently depicted metaphor for change. Color was everywhere, covering the mountainsides like bright tie-dye covers a T-shirt. Individual trees were extraordinary and the hiking paths were covered with newly fallen leaves looking like multi-colored cobblestone. The rest of our trip would be a celebration of this moment in time. Change was inevitable and it was good.
We left Stowe four days later, driving past mountain lakes surrounded by rich Impressionistic slopes, through New Hampshire to a historic inn on Walker Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, across the cove from the Bush Family estate. All the local seaside inns display flags whenever the President or Barbara Bush were in town.
A flat in Boston was next where we walked the Freedom Trail and spent a day in the JFK Museum at the University of Massachusetts, a prelude to our next stop, Hyannisport, Camelot of the 1960s. After visiting another small, more localized JFK museum, we were on the fast ferry to Nantucket Island for a slower pace, leaving our car on the mainland. Back on the road days later, we headed to New York City via New Haven, Connecticut and Yale University. New York didn’t have any special significance except that it was New York and we had an apartment on the Upper East Side for our last week.
Revitalized, we returned to watch Barack Obama make it official on the second Tuesday in November. Change was here as well as a national crisis that was testing people’s hope. Whatever the first-term agenda was intended to be, it was now about facing the most dangerous economic quagmire since the Great Depression. I felt the weight on his shoulders. I thought about Jackie Robinson and all he went through, but that was 1947. This was the year 2008 and I was energized to stay engaged in how the next few years would unfold. Somehow I felt primed to confront it all. Those life changes that consumed my thoughts over the past few months were not as significant as I imagined. My spirit was renewed and they hadn’t changed who I am.