I have had fun in America.
I have partied in San Francisco.
I have roller-bladed through Central Park, New York.
I have sat drinking bourbon in Montana watching the light fade over the Rocky Mountains.
I have wondered at Chicago’s architecture and its blues clubs.
I have listened to Beethoven’s 9th. Symphony under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl.
I have stood in that beautifully simple building in Philadelphia where the American Constitution was adopted just across the street from the Liberty Bell.
I had fun, for sure. I felt so many good things about America, in many ways the recipient of the best of my own country and a challenge to the worst with its inspirational, if as yet unfulfilled American Dream. Independent from Britain, of course, for centuries now but still more than an ally, more than a friend.
I was seduced, fascinated and absorbed by this great nation and, yesterday, with those billions around the World felt all the emotion and hope reflected in that massive crowd gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was a hope, I last felt when Nelson Mandela walked out of that South African jail and when the Berlin Wall coming down signalled the end of the Soviet Union.
Yesterday was another sign of freedom.
Who knows what will happen or even this bright new President can really achieve even a tiny percentage of our hopes but the very fact that he was there yesterday, just like those other two events, was enough to change the World.
As I said, I have had fun in the United States.
I have also seen things that made me shudder.
I looked in vain for a white face amongst the prisoners in Chicago’s Cook Jail.
I was stoned by a gang of American Indian drug addicts in Minneapolis.
I witnessed the daily body count in Richmond, Virginia’s morgue…then the highest per capita murder rate in the U.S.
But worse than all of that was seeing the contrast within the great American cities themselves.
New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love”, places I know best, are divided, quite brutally, along racial lines.
In Philadelphia, I found so much to admire, not just its place in the long history of the rights of man but also in its apparently modern faith in those civilised, liberal values.
When I had to visit an address in what I was told was known as “the hood”, I was shocked to find that I required an armed bodyguard.
There he was on the morning of the trip, a black retired Philadelphia cop, grizzled hair, tooth pick in the side of his mouth and a gun prominently exposed on his hip. He drove me around, we joked together, in that easy American way, I like to think we became friends too. Even so, he was firm and unbending when we got to the hood.
“When I say leave”, he said, “you leave, OK. If you don’t you will be killed. No question”.
I was the only white face for miles around but this was not racial hatred even though we were in an area of the poorest housing I had seen in the so-called First World. At a given time every day, cars draw up, children come in off the street and then a white face becomes a threat.
I am talking about drug dealers of course. This part of town, just like so many other black “ghettoes” all over the States, has it own drug economy. White faces mean cops.
Luckily I was not shot even though we left just as those cars arrived. My new friend drove me out of town on anther trip the next day into the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside where I offered him lunch in a restuarant where days earlier I had eaten the best pie imaginable served by the friendliest of people.
When we arrived, this hardened old cop turned down my invitation saying that he would eat his sandwiches in the car. I insisted, offended in my ignorance, so he relented.
Inside the mood was now transformed. No longer welcome, but legally bound to be let in, we were put in a corner, treated with chilly efficiency and encouraged to eat up and go.
A few days later, I was in Washington D.C., where I had also experienced these dramatic contrasts.
It was a beautiful day – perfect blue skies emphasised the pure white of the Capitol and the White House as I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue. There was something, dare I say it, cold about those gleaming monuments which, I know, inspire hope in so many.
I walked to the Lincoln Memorial to see the great man himself sitting on his throne, gigantic, so much bigger than any of us imagine until actually standing there under his stern but kindly gaze.
The statue though had missed a trick I felt. It was too big, too cold in its stone…..the man himself had a heart.
Turning my back on him I looked up the Avenue to the Capitol. It was surrounded by American flags flying at half-mast. Beautiful in the sunlight but strangely empty, Washington was showing its respects to its recently dead, Richard Nixon.
Well it sure looked different yesterday!
Two million well-wishers with billions more round the World inspired by the sight, clapped and cheered and cried as President Obama took his oath.
Here in Britain, as much as everywhere in the World, people have taken heart from this man’s election. So many hopes ride with him and so many weights are laid on his back. Nothing is more central to his country’s reputation in the World, than his fulfillment of all the hopes expressed on those joyful black faces on the route from the Lincoln Memorial to Capitol Hill.