"Let's listen in now to the Marine Corps Band," the CNN commentator says. The camera pans across the Washington Mall. People, as far as the eye can see, waiting for the historic moment, the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, the first African American to ever hold this high office.
The music ennobles, solemnizes, projects a holy canopy of sound over these august proceedings of state, "democracy's most sacred moment" the CNN commentator calls it.
George W. Bush appears through an arch of velvet curtains, waving, smiling, his last presidential appearance. The signal is given. The Marine Corps Band bursts into vigorous play. They know it cold, having played it a thousand times before, but this time is momentous.
"This is the last time George W. Bush will hear 'Hail to the Chief' being played for him," the CNN commentator intones as the president descends red-carpet stairs, making his way to the seat of honour. "The next time you hear it, in just a few moments, it'll be for his successor, President Obama, who will hear it for the first time playing for him."
It strikes me, with the force of a physical blow: Tom, you used to play "Hail to the Chief" all the time! You were a member of the Marine Corps Band. This was your job, for 20 years, through four successive administrations, to play your clarinet, wherever and whenever required, in herald of the nation's Commander-in-Chief, making glorious and smooth the presidential way. Hail to the chief! Make way for Grenada and Panama! Make way for Afghanistan and Iraq! Make way for Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo! Make way, make way!
You never talked about it much. You were too modest for that. Or maybe because it just wasn't that important. It was something you did for awhile, when you were young and wanted to be a professional musician, a way to serve your country without going to Vietnam.
So you played at the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. Bush, each a day just like today. Might you be here now?
"It is my pleasure to introduce a unique musical performance," Senator Dianne Feinstein announces. "Mr. Itzhak Perlman, violinist; Anthony McGill, clarinettist; Yo Yo Mau, cellist; Gabriela Montero pianist, performing 'Air and Simple Gifts,' a composition arranged for this occasion by John Williams."
(An Israeli American, an African American, a Chinese American, and a Venezuelan American in orchestra together!)
"Simple Gifts"? Could it be? Surely not.
Piano and cello begin it: a soft breeze. Then violin: high, piercing, sad, for a moment alone. Piano and violin joining: A slow irresistible force gathers, dissolving sweetness, doors of the heart opening