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Commentary: Obama summons ghosts of American history

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  • Paul Begala: Obama's speech was a brave and bracing departure
  • He says Obama showed belief in realism and his faith we can overcome problems
  • Begala: He evoked ghosts of American history, who would approve
  • He says Obama symbolizes American dream of remarkable achievement
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By Paul Begala
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

Paul Begala says Obama embodies the American dream, and our fate is now tied to his fate.

Paul Begala says Obama embodies the American dream, and our fate is now tied to his fate.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sometimes pictures tell a story better than words. On Inauguration Day, we saw Barack Obama, strong and certain, striding purposefully into the presidency.

And we saw Dick Cheney, once one of the most powerful people on Earth, reduced to being wheeled out of the White House.

Of course, we all wish good health for the former vice president, but the contrasting images were stark.

Barack Obama's inaugural address was a bracing, brave break with the past.

"On this day," he said, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." He sternly scolded the "greed and irresponsibility" of our current era, and called for "action, bold and swift."

Take that, George W. Bush, whose false promises and worn-out dogmas have turned so much of the nation against him.

Barack Obama's story is unique in its particulars, but it is universal in its appeal. One grandfather a Kenyan goat herder who opposed colonial rule, the other a Kansas farm boy who joined Patton's army to fight the Nazis.

His parents' marriage was illegal in 16 states, and his mother struggled, turning to food stamps to keep body and soul together, and waking young Barry up at 4:30 in the morning to nourish his brain.

He understands and appreciates the American Dream because he is its living embodiment. His story is our story. And now his fate and ours are inextricably intertwined.

As a speechwriter, I know you say a lot in the quotations you choose. President Barack Obama chose two and he chose wisely. First, St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians in which he exhorts the people of Corinth to, in effect, grow up.

"When I was a child," Paul wrote, "I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. But when I became a man I put aside childish things."

The new president used that ancient letter to deliver a badly needed message after eight years of anything goes: Put your big-boy pants on, America.

The president closed by quoting the words from Tom Paine that Gen. Washington ordered read aloud at Valley Forge. "Let it be told to the future world," Washington said, "that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

The quote shows Obama's belief in unflinching courage, unblinking realism and an unrelenting faith that by coming together we Americans can bend history to our will.

Of course, even as Washington words echoed, other ghosts of American history were milling about. Abe Lincoln prowled the Mall. FDR, his ever-present cigarette holder clenched in his smiling teeth, cheered zestily. Dr. King called out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and John F. Kennedy called back to him from the steps of the Capitol.

When Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, President Kennedy watched it on TV from the White House. As King concluded, Kennedy said, "He's good. He's damn good." I like to think that as Barack Obama concluded his inaugural address, Dr. King turned to President Kennedy and said, "This young man's pretty damn good, too."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

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