The text for our meditation is something the late columnist Mike Royko wrote when he bade good-bye to the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. My Royko books are in storage and what he said was not lifted up by Google and other search engines, but it was etched in my mind, and I hope that my reproduction is faithful. It went something like this: "Farewell, President Johnson. You weren't the best president a people ever had, but we were not the best people a president ever had."
This season people are still debating whether President Bush, who, I think, is being mentioned in this column for the first time on his last day in office, is "the worst president a people ever had," and I don't think we are "the worst people a president ever had." But Inauguration Day is a good time to reflect on "what kind of people we have been" and "what kind of people might we wish to be and might become."
Presidents of both parties from Eisenhower to Clinton have cited Alexis de Tocqueville, the great commentator on American life: "America is great because America is good." Two problems: Tocqueville never wrote that - look it up! And "good" is too hard to define, is too much in the eye of the beholders, and is far too crisp and clean for any nation to advertise, since the record of each is mixed, and more mixed each year.
What kind of people do we want to be with a new president who has such lofty ideas about what he wants to be? A sermon: We might do better if we aspire to be good rather than claim to be good; if we become a self-claimed godly people who serve God more than we boast about our goodness; if we spend less time fighting over who prays when and where and how, and let the intrinsic value of praying speak for itself.
What kind of people do we want to be? It would be good to see us as a people weary of "culture wars" in which God gets used, and ready for armistice and truces so we can fight the political battles that must be fought in pursuit of justice; a self-claimed godly people that stops legitimating torture of humans; a less litigious people who concerns itself with building trust; a people that will turn down the shouting on talk-radio, cable television, and the internet, so that we can hear each other.
What kind of people do we want to be? A people not paralyzed by fear and insecurity in the face of fearful threats; a people more dedicated than before to the education of all and health care for all; a people concerned with the environment given - many of us say - by a generous Creator; a people concerned for the rights of others. In four or eight years we hope to bid our now-new president farewell upon his retirement: "Farewell. Your and our record is mixed, but there is good in it. And you and we and the people we affect can live with that."