I'm optimistic. Cautiously so, and make no predictions about how this ends up. But, for this day of fresh starts, optimistic.
First, the system itself is quite sound, and Inauguration Day is a reminder that our government can weather all manner of ills. So, at noon on Jan. 20, one political party will peacefully hand over power to the opposition.
There will be some panic, and pouting, and protest, but that goes with the territory. Remember, we invented this. Before 1801, when Democratic-Republicans ousted the Federalists, the global standard for a transfer of power among opposing forces was regicide or a coup. (How many beheaded royals look down now and wish, "My kingdom for a nasty Twitter exchange?") There was certainly panic and protest over Thomas Jefferson taking the oath. And John Adams, denied reelection, was the first pouter in chief, refusing to attend his successor's inauguration.
Jefferson, ever gracious and knowing we are stronger together, famously reached out on day one: "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." The factions still clashed, but the republic survived, and Jefferson's Virginia dynasty held on to power for 24 years.
This administration will have its troubles, self-induced and otherwise, with many eager to see that it doesn't last even one term. And while I don't expect Jeffersonian heights from our new president, part of my optimism stems from one thing the two men clearly share: an ability to recruit talented people.
Once the hiring started, the selections suggested there was more to Donald Trump than the public persona. The first clue came in July, when Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was chosen as the running mate. Further evidence has come during the transition.
Candidate Trump had been, quite deliberately, all about message and image - each move and statement purposefully crafted to attract attention and potential voters, while driving the media up the wall and thus attracting even more attention. There is still no shortage of bluster and swagger from the president-elect, but his cabinet nominees suggest that something more thoughtful is going on behind the scenes at Trump Tower.
To help run a government that is largely viewed as dysfunctional, Trump turned to the military, one institution that has consistently earned high marks from a vast majority of Americans in recent years. Having the highly respected retired Marine Gens. James Mattis and John Kelly leading Defense and Homeland Security, respectively, will not mean, as critics fear, a rush to using force to solve problems. They are experienced combat leaders who have seen up close what the military has faced post-9/11, fully understand the threats we face, and know first-hand the costs of war. Equally important, they will speak up when they disagree with the president they serve. This has been made clear at their confirmation hearings, and others, over the past two weeks.
The rest of the team is equally strong, including Nikki Haley at the United Nations, Jeff Sessions at Justice, Dan Coats as national intelligence director, Mike Pompeo at CIA, Betty DeVos at Education, Tom Price at Health and Human Services, Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, and David Shulkin at Veterans Affairs.
The Washington Post provided a peek into the decision-making process after the surprise announcement of former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. The top cabinet post had attracted a number of well-known candidates - Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, David Petraeus, John Bolton, and Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) - each with vocal supporters and detractors. In the midst of the debate, Trump had a visit from Robert M. Gates, who has served under Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. The president-elect asked the former defense secretary and CIA director for his views on the candidates, and then, according to the Post, "asked whether there was someone else to consider. 'I recommend Rex,' Gates told Trump."
Apparently Trump actually listened to this wise longtime public servant - not something you'd expect from a man who regularly boasts about his smarts. He needs to make such thoughtfulness the norm.
The last glimmer of optimism came unexpectedly, while viewing the "Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950" exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One expressionist piece, "Birth of Fascism" (1936), by David Alfaro Siqueiros, depicts a woman on a raft in a storm-tossed sea. The original included a sinking Statue of Liberty and the woman giving birth to heads of Hitler, Mussolini, and U.S. publisher and capitalist William Randolph Hearst. A later version, the one in the exhibit, omitted the statue and the heads, but an enormous menacing swastika has emerged from the water.
Siqueiros never wavered in his socialist ideals, but he also recognized the need to, in some cases, set aside differences and unite for the common good. The same instinct inspired Lincoln's message to a nation on the brink of war. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," he counseled his countrymen, who, even while vehemently opposed on some issues, still shared many basic values, and principles, and goals.
In uncertain and turbulent times, it's hard to discern common problems and foes. But with some perspective, some leadership, and some thoughtfulness, it's possible to unite and conquer them.
Kevin Ferris is the Inquirer's commentary editor. firstname.lastname@example.org