Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cook will not have any personal memories of President Donald Trump’s inauguration because he was not on hand for it. But Cook can vividly recall the cold day that Barack Obama took the oath to become the nation’s first black president, and he thinks that more than alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election may have prompted Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis to stay away from the ceremony.
“This goes back to what Trump did to Obama,” Cook said. “And it may not have the same impact on a lot of people as it has on, I think, the African-American people.
“Donald Trump was one of the leaders of trying to delegitimize the Obama presidency. He held onto that ‘birther’ issue longer than any other public figure in this country. And so, I don’t know what John Lewis was thinking … but it could have been a little bit of tit for tat.”
Lewis, an Alabama native and a pioneer in the civil rights movement, said in an interview last week that he would not attend the Trump inaugural because he believed Russian government directed hacking in the election, as cited in a report by U.S. intelligence officials, helped Trump defeat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump responded with sarcastic tweets about Lewis and conditions in his Atlanta-area congressional district and what he should be doing about America’s inner cities.
Trump’s cyber comments on Lewis prompted U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, Alabama’s lone Democrat in Congress and its only black representative there, to say she would not attend the inauguration.
According to the Washington Post, nearly 70 Democratic congressional members said they would boycott Trump’s swearing-in to protest, among other things, “what they described as his alarming and divisive policies.” The number of boycotters jumped, according to the Post, after a January 14 Trump tweet in which he said Lewis should “focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.”
Trump’s questioning of Obama’s citizenship, which he started doing publicly in 2011, was not mentioned in the Lewis-Trump spat. But it was an issue in the presidential campaign, and it was only in mid-September that Trump acknowledged that Obama was born in the U.S.
Obama’s citizenship was not on Cook’s mind on January 20, 2009, when he took his seat on the National Mall about a football field away from the podium at which Obama would take the presidential oath. He wanted to witness a historical first, something Cook could relate to; he had been the Bessemer Cut-off’s first black district judge, its first black circuit judge, and he had gone on to serve as an associate justice on the Alabama Supreme Court from 1993 to 2001. He now is of counsel at the Birmingham law firm of Hare Wynn Newell & Newton.
Cook was not alone on that bitterly cold inauguration day. Those with him included his wife Charlsie and their three grown children, and their three grandchildren. And around them was a crowd, that in its demeanor, size, and makeup, he had never seen before.
“There were so many people from … every ethnic group, and what I call the ‘All American people’ — where you can’t tell what they are,” Cook said.
“Oh, how joyous it was. There were so many people — and I don’t like crowds — but there was no feeling that anything was going to happen, that harm was going to come to anybody. And people were just so, so friendly. People were reaching out to others. People were cold, and people had hot drinks, and I remember a lady fell and a big group came over and picked her up and were taking care of her, making sure she was all right.”
Now that the Obama era has ended, what, Cook was asked, has it left that will last? Not surprisingly, he pointed to what was achieved by the Affordable Care Act, now targeted for repeal by the Trump administration and the majority-Republican House and Senate.
“Regardless of all of this hoopla about repeal [of] Obamacare, this is the first time a program of that magnitude has been passed,” Cook said. “And I think that the thinkers in the Congress realize that they just cannot eliminate health care of that magnitude from the American people.
“There will exist in some form, in my judgment, a health care program that will allow people who otherwise could not get it before the Affordable Care Act to have health insurance going forward … They can call it something else. It may be Trump Care, or Pence Care [after Vice President Mike Pence], or whatever, but the essence of that program I believe in some form will continue to exist, and historians will trace it back to Barack Obama.”