My Must-See Moment at Every Inaugural

02/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The scene that hugs my heart each time a new president is sworn-in, is generally eclipsed by the pomp and circumstance of the parade and the swearing-in at the Capitol.

It typically lasts about five minutes, and it's treated like an afterthought by the media and celebrants trying to capture the story and enjoy the hoopla.

But I wait for it every time - just like a kid before Christmas.

I'm talking about the sight of the former president walking to the Marine helicopter after the inaugural, waving good-bye to a few loyalists and pool reporters, and simply flying away until he is barely a speck on the horizon.

A lot of people on Tuesday will be happy to see George W. Bush go. His final approval ratings are the lowest ever recorded by Gallup for an outgoing president, but that isn't the point. This exit ritual is always much bigger than the person or the political party involved.

It's the final act in a process that allows ultimate authority to shift peacefully from one man to another in the most powerful nation the world has ever known without a shot being fired, a person being imprisoned or a life being lost.

It's a sublime affirmation that our Constitution works, that the fundamental principles of our nation are bigger than Bush, Barack Obama or anyone who has come before or who will come after either of them.

Now, I can already feel the virtual weight of rolling eyes, mass temptations to click to another thread, and cynical whispers of "Oh, come on."

So please, let me explain.

I came of age politically during the summer of 1974 (in the months before my freshman year at the University of Texas). Those were the darkest days of Watergate, when our Constitution was put to an unimaginable test.

My hero in that epic drama was U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Houston, who on the eve of impeachment told us in that booming, God-like voice that the sanctity of the Constitution - not loyalty to a person or political party - was at stake.

I'll never forget the speech she gave (audio and video here) as a member of the House Judiciary Committee shortly before she voted to bring the president to trial.

She reminded us that African-Americans and women had not always enjoyed the protections of the Constitution, yet it was her unshakable belief in the promises that document contains that led her to where she was that day.

...when that document (the Constitution) was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We, the people." I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in "We, the people."

Today I am an inquisitor. And hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.

Two weeks later, Nixon resigned.

I was 17 years old and trying as best a teenager could to figure it all out. From the torrent of images and unprecedented news coverage one unforgettable scene was seared into my mind: Nixon walking out of the White House, turning to wave with that ridiculous "V" that was his trademark and flying away.

That was the moment at an impressionable age I realized we have something in this country more powerful than the president. And I've made a point to find a quiet moment over the years to watch Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all do the same.

I voted, as I've noted, twice for Obama, and already he's done a few things to give me pause. I've also written about one thing in particular scheduled to happen on Tuesday that is so callous in my opinion to the principles contained in the Constitution it is unimaginable to me.

But even that won't dampen what I'll feel later that day.

So on Tuesday enjoy the parade. Listen to President-elect Obama give a speech that will set in motion his already historic presidency. But hang around long enough to treat yourself to this final historic moment.

Remember this often overlooked, unofficial affirmation of our Constitution, and the promise that in a pluralistic democracy we have a set of common principles that transcend the president or any presidency.