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Page last updated at 11:22 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Washington diary: Healing divisions

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Crowds gather on the National Mall in Washington DC
The inauguration day imposed an unusual degree of equality on Washington

America prides itself on being a melting pot.

But in most part, this country is an archipelago of tribes living apart from each other on opposite sides of unmarked barriers.

Our street in Washington is a good example. We live in a predominantly white neighbourhood.

At the last "block-party" there was only one African-American family. He's a partner in a law firm. She's a college professor.

All day the name Obama was whispered, shouted, spoken and sung like some Esperanto mantra, invoked to heal divisions and engender good feelings

Although the neighbourhood is white and well-to-do, the public primary school - and in this country "public" means just that - opposite our house is predominantly black.

Hardly any of the children at Phoebe Hearst come from this part of Washington. They are bussed in from the poor part of the city on the other side of Capitol Hill, five miles away.

Next door is another school: Sidwell Friends. This is a predominantly white private school, founded by Quakers. It is one of the best and richest in the city.

This is where Chelsea Clinton went, when the family lived in the White House, and is now the school of the Obama children, Malia and Sasha.

I am not being judgmental about anyone's choice of where their children are educated. Our kids also go to private schools in the area.

My point is this. Washington DC like much of America conducts unofficially segregated lives, where the boundaries of race and income often coincide.

The same is true of Dallas, Cleveland, Phoenix or Chicago. The combination of cheap petrol, good roads and seemingly endless space has allowed suburban white tribes to head to the hills and prairies.

Washington, especially, has never mixed well. The race riots of the late 1960s are still seared on long memories. The rest is a combination of fear and habit.

The icon

But this week something changed. Like millions of other people I made my way to the inauguration festivities before the first light of dawn.

Tens of thousands of people crammed onto trains that made the Tokyo morning commute look deserted. But on Tuesday morning the claustrophobic throng of the masses couldn't have been more delightful.

A large crowd watches the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama
Obama became an icon before he started running the country
Everyone was happily invading everyone else's space. People helped each other, holding open doors that threatened to slice you in half, smiling, laughing, buoyed by the sense of occasion.

On one train I spotted two famous TV anchors and a media mogul amidst the crush of passengers. I am sure they would have taken a limo if they could have got their hands on one.

But the circumstances of the day imposed an unusual degree of equality on this city.

And what I noticed most of all is that the crowd streaming to the National Mall was Asian- American, Indian-American, Hispanic-American, German-, Irish- or Italian-American and above all African-American.

That was not the case at the last inauguration I attended in 2005.

All day the name Obama was whispered, shouted, spoken and sung like some Esperanto mantra, invoked to heal divisions and engender good feelings.

The 44th president has become an icon before he has started running the country. It is something he may, of course, regret.

Worldly president

He always told his adoring crowds during the campaign that "this is about you". He repeated it during the inauguration ceremony and he is right.

Barack Obama is a politician who allows and invites people to project their dreams and hopes onto him as if he was a blank screen. He said so himself in his book, The Audacity of Hope.

Unlike any of their predecessors the Obamas reflect the crazy ethnic quilt of America itself

As the product of Kansas, Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, Harvard and Chicago, he is more a citizen of the world than any of his predecessors. But he is also quintessentially American.

Like the country he now leads he has become a mirror of the world. This is one reason why the rest of the planet never felt comfortable with George W Bush, the hammy Texan.

Rightly or wrongly the world ideally wants American presidents to be worldly.

This week Washington turned into a caravanserai offering up a Babel of strange tongues. I heard Swedish, Russian, Arabic and Polish. I spotted a troop of tired-looking Tibetan monks, twittering Argentine nuns and red-faced Latvian dentists.

They had all come to see the celebration of a First Family that reflected their own mixed origins.

Unlike any of their predecessors the Obamas reflect the crazy ethnic quilt of America itself: the Kenyan grandmother who speaks Luo; the black mother-in-law from Chicago; the American Indonesian half-sister and her Chinese American husband.

This is the reality of America today and the election of Barack Obama reflected the desire of a majority of voters to celebrate those Americans who are proud to own a passport, learn a foreign language, travel overseas and display an unabashed curiosity about the outside world.

The outward looking USA has triumphed over the inward looking USA.

Real and gritty

It will be fascinating to see how much Obama, the icon, can live up to the expectations set for Obama, the chief executive.

President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle dance at the inaugural ball
Will the Obamas succumb to living in a White House bubble?
Will he succumb to the inevitable temptation of living inside a White House bubble that became notoriously opaque and armour-plated under the last president?

It is said that George W went out to eat in restaurants only 21 times in his eight years in Washington.

He prided himself on railing against the clammy unreality of the city that had become his home. But Washington isn't as artificial as the lobby firms on K Street would suggest.

It offers a very real and somewhat gritty slice of America. We know the Obamas can dance, we know they like to eat out, we know they want their kids to lead as normal a life as possible under the new living arrangements.

We also know that the luxury of being an icon will jar with the clumsy business of government.

"Yes we can" has already become "Now he must". But if the Obamas can live IN their new city as opposed to IN SPITE OF it, the magic of the coldest week this year might just linger a little longer.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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