Observing the 57th Inauguration: A Beginning and an End
Four years ago, I was huddled and shivering in the press section in front of the dais at the U.S. Capitol, listening to just-sworn-in President of the United States Barrack Hussein Obama. I’d gotten up around four in the morning, navigated two Metro rides, and any number of check points on Capitol Hill to get here. It was my one and only time up so close to it all. This was history, and some part of me insisted. I’ve never regretted the experience, the pictures, the words seeming to come rolling down a mountain toward the multitude.
Like President Obama exiting the dais after giving his second inaugural address, I turned around at some point in the proceedings that day in 2009 and saw the full and mighty, magnitude of a million point three Americans gathered together to bear witness. It was like a sundrenched firmament of thousands of stars, sparkling, buzzing, reverberating, glowing on the mall, and it invaded the mind’s eye as an enduring image and memory.
I didn’t go this time around, four years later. I stayed home—no cold, no Metro, no inaugural balls, no receptions, no up-close and freezing personal. I stayed home and watched the whole thing on television, with my loved one, but we sure didn’t feel alone.
I heard voices all day and night, but especially in the hours and minutes before, during and after the president’s swearing in and his speech, part of the network in this further firmament under a mostly brightly lit sky of blue. It is, of course, a different sort of experience to watch this every-four-years event of renewal and promise of a better future sitting at home watching television. Out on the streets, there is no sense of detail, there are no prominent faces, only crowded cul de sacs and a kind of weight of crowds. At a parade route, or in a building, or even at the Capitol in a press group, once you’re there, that’s where you are.
At home, you get a sense of the totality of the thing, a kind of intimacy of detail and faces as close as their pores—with every shot of the president taking his oath, I began to count the lines in his hands. The voices are loud and clear, (especially inaugural committee chairman Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introducing people with the glee of a circus barker), the faces like photo stills writ large, the feelings palatable, the details—gloves, high heels, frowns, cowboy hats, wind touching hair, the individualized faces in the crowds, the precision of all things military, a kind of stoic bearing, hats, both noble and silly---Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia managed to look like an official in an entourage of Borgian Rome. There was a surprisingly wintry-looking Bill Clinton, unknowingly peeking out of a shot of singer Kelly Clarkson.
And yet, there is a disconnect—along with the background noise of the paid chattering masses at every network—from the place. You get no sense of the temperature—both in terms of degrees and emotion. The screen is a buffer to the place and the time in the place and space, the raw energy of crowds. What we see is reduced to a kind of drama or ritual, accompanied by the Greek and geek choruses of the media.
But coffee mug sitting alongside me, I was not distanced to the point of nonchalance. Those two bibles, those two daughters, the elder statesmen in the crowd, the exuberance of Vice President Joe Biden who is the kind of man who would talk with a tree if it needed persuading of something, the ruffles and flourishes, the rambling, evocative train-passing pictures of America provided by the poet Richard Blanco, intoning the Whitmanesque “One Today,” James Taylor making a gentle folk song out of “America the Beautiful”, the girlish enthusiasm of Kelly Clarkson after she nailed “My Country 'Tis of Thee,” Beyonce apparently (she is said to have been lip-synching) hitting the high notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner," even the cocktail-party atmosphere of the inaugural lunch seemed seamless in the nature of the day.
It seemed to me, watching the president, that he returned to this podium as a renewed and enlarged man, more fully the president than before, a man at home with the bully pulpit who talked again about the future as if it were manageable, a worthy place to move about in and solve problems in a shared venture. He also seemed to be cognizant of the new man on the National Mall, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorial which had not been there four years ago, and with it memories of King’s speech and the occasion of his birthday which shared occasion space.
The president, who had been sworn in on two bibles, Abraham Lincoln’s and King’s, contemporized even as he memorialized—there were references to gun control and Newtown, the sparks that galvanized women’s rights, gay rights and the civil rights movement in the South, as one moving tapestry. There were urgings to “respond to the threat of climate change,” referencing the disasters of Sandy. And while he acknowledged that the always growing deficit must be tackled by everyone, he did not stray from his support of the least among us and those without or very little means. “We do not believe that freedom is reserved for the lucky or happiness for the few.”
For the word trackers, there is news: he invoked the phrase, “We the people,” many times, to the point of poetry.
In the end, this was a renewed Obama, more secure in the power he wields than when he first took office. For whatever that may portend, he probably will not be quiet. He seemed in that speech like the old Obama, the visualizer of dreams, the conjurer of hope. All this, of course, as so many commentators noted, may end up meaning nothing if he and we get overwhelmed by dust storms stirred in the Middle East, if he and his rivals fail to meet at some critical crossroads and join together—and there are many such occasions coming faster than you can imagine. The bloom of an inaugural, its sweet song and high hopes can disappear in moments. And, too, just as many as thought the speech fine and inspiring, so a large (perhaps even 50 percent) group saw it as a battle hymn of liberalism, a gauntlet, a wiggly line in the sand.
The political analysis that inevitably accompanies such occasions—by statesmen, experts, rogues, fools and hell-benters, not to mention the fashionistas, seems at home like the work of kill-joys, or people who cannot let an image speak for itself, but must caption it, like a two-yard running gain decoded by a two-year-old.
No explaining was needed to observe the first family enjoying themselves on the reviewing stand, first lady Michelle Obama in a state of puckering, the president moving to the beat of marching bands—including that of his old high school, the girls texting, photo-making, teasing each other.
There was way too much talk all day about the first lady's newly minted bangs, and the expected critiques of her first ball dress, a flaming, but elegant red number, as remarked upon strangely on CNN by a trio made up of anchor Anderson Cooper, Republican consultant Margaret Hoover and Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn.
When the president turned around again one last time at the west side of the Capitol to take in the multitude along the Mall, it helped to know that he said, "I won’t see this again." We understood what he felt and saw—ourselves turned out for him and the time by the thousands upon thousands. Wherever you were—in the middle of it, at home, in Iowa or New York, or down the street, you felt the beginning of something but also the end.