24 January 2009

An Unmediated Inauguration, Part 5

Jan. 20
10:30 am

Though this was my third or possibly fourth visit to Washington, I’d never seen Georgetown before, and it was quite a revelation. No less so to Danny and Bella, who found it compared favorably with their familiar haunts in the West of England. “This is not at all how I pictured America,” Danny kept saying, and to be frank, neither had I. A rarefied haven for the wealthy and well-connected it may be, but on the surface it resembles nothing so much as a tastefully understated village of the sort you might encounter in a Disney World replication of Ye Good Olde Days.

By the time I awoke people were already streaming down our normally quiet street, bundled up against the cold and headed in only one direction. We were about two miles from the National Mall and anxious to set off ourselves, but Bella sensibly and/or schoolmarmishly insisted that we stop for breakfast, a decision that may or may not have cost us our chance of obtaining a vantage point in front of the Washington Monument rather than slightly behind and to the left of it.

Even if we had made it out front, we wouldn’t have seen much of the actual event. True, we would have had an only partially obscured view of the Capitol, though even a good pair of binoculars wouldn’t reveal much of the action on its steps 1.2 miles away. In exchange, we would have lost our opportunity to watch the proceedings on the giant television screens lining the sides of the Mall. Another five, maybe even three minutes and we wouldn’t even have been able to claim the spot we did, far enough up the hill to see over the heads of people in front of us, all but one very tall fellow who compounded that crime by wearing a ridiculous hat that added another four inches to his height, and his partner, who insisted on holding a camera aloft during most of the ceremony.

“It’s a television screen, you ninny,” I kept wanting to tell her. “You’re taking pictures of a television screen.” But this was neither the time nor the place for snide or unpleasant words, and if anybody beside myself was thinking them, they remained unspoken. All of us were still reeling from the spectacle we had become part of, streams, rivers, oceanic tides of people pouring forth from every available street to fill every available corner of the 309 acre Mall.

I marveled at Danny and Bella’s willingness to endure the cramped conditions, the 28 degree temperatures – probably in the teens if you factor in wind chill – for the sake of observing this alien ritual, but they seemed nearly as excited as I was. Periodically a brass band would strike up somewhere, playing the Sousa or Sousa-esque marches that called to mind some 19th century extravaganza of bombast, oratory and patriotism, at which William Jennings Bryan might have bloviated against the mankind’s crucifixion on a cross of gold.

The TV showed us various dignitaries arriving at the Capitol, and since there was no commentary, the crowd added its own. Ted Kennedy received a rousing cheer, as did Bill Clinton; Jimmy Carter’s ovation, while warm, was slightly more subdued. The first President Bush, hobbling on a cane and looking shockingly older than anyone seemed to remember him being, was greeted with a restrained – or simply strained – silence, while a wheelchair-bound Dick Cheney, resembling a defeated Darth Vader or, as Danny observed, one of Satan’s minions from whom the Dark Lord had abruptly removed his powers, got a resounding chorus of boos.

That was nothing, of course, compared with the reception awaiting President Bush. I doubt any President in history, especially in the course of a solemn state occasion, has had to endure such a dramatic and vociferous rejection of all that he has stood for. “Everyone throw your shoes at him,” one man yelled, and if the weather had been even slightly milder, he might have had quite a few takers.

“I almost feel sorry for him,” said one woman, but she was quickly shushed by her neighbors. Bush himself was clearly not taken by surprise; he had steeled himself in advance and maintained a stern but unruffled mien that betrayed little hint of hurt, uneasiness or anger as his successor and anyone remotely related to his successor enjoyed an ecstatic, rapturous welcome.

At last Senator Dianne Feinstein launched the ceremony itself, to shouts of approval of the woman in front of us, who had come from San Francisco by way of Austin, Texas. The same woman hissed viciously at the introduction of Pastor Rick Warren (“He’s very right wing,” she explained), but Obama’s choice as Designated Preacher proved to have been a wise if impolitic one. Warren delivered an invocation that was sufficiently Jaysus-fraught to satisfy all but the most strident Bible-bashers (the sort, for example, who had set up shot at the entrance to the Mall with banners reading, “Obama is not the way; Jesus is”) without alienating the tentatively or blatantly irreligious. I snuck a peak at Danny and Bella, whose experience with impassioned public prayer is nearly nonexistent, and detected nary an eye roll.

Then came Aretha Franklin, with whom I have a little bit of history. As a boy I’d heard her singing with the choir on her father’s – the Rev. C.L. Franklin – weekly radio broadcast, as a young man I’d bought and sung along to her pop and soul hits, and now here we both were, many years down the line, she as a national institution, and I – well, on more than one occasion it’s been suggested that I belonged in one.

“Oowee, look at that hat,” squealed several members of the crowd, I being one of them, and indeed it was a wondrous, multi-cornered hat of which, it turned out, much more could be written but will not be here. She sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in a goose bump-inducing soul style, straying sufficiently from the original melody that when I asked Danny and Bella what they thought of this remaking of their national anthem, they both looked blank.

“It’s ‘God Save The Queen,’” I pointed out, “with American lyrics.” “Dreadful song, I completely loathe it,” Danny offered. “Absolutely dire,” Bella chimed in, before both acknowledged that the American version was a considerable improvement. An all-star quartet performed something called “Air and Simple Gifts,” prompting me to observe that this was somewhat classier than I would have expected to hear at any recent inauguration.

“These are educated people,” Ms. Austin-cum-San Francisco informed me, and indeed, that was the impression being conveyed. Then Barack Obama, having taken the oath of office, began to speak and removed any doubt of that assertion.

John Kennedy is the only other President I have heard who could so effortlessly and naturally wield such stately and measured tones, but Kennedy’s rhetoric was more ethereal, almost airy-fairy. No less thrilling because of it, but Obama’s eloquence is more of the hands-on, down-to-earth variety. It too thrills and inspires in more than adequate measure, but goes a step or three beyond in its ability to command a full measure of devotion from his listeners. Right now, I swear Obama could lead these assembled multitudes headlong into the sea, or headlong into the all-consuming maw of an invading army.

It’s a little frightening, almost: who is this man who in the space of a couple years has come from near-obscurity to stand Colossus-like astride the world? How could the clunky, leaden banalities of our recent leader so suddenly give way to such lofty Ciceronian discourse? And yet, in this moment, who else is there? Who else could attract the trust not just of Americans but of long-alienated allies and even some implacable foes?

Cheers and exultations and “amens” resonated across the Mall when the new President told us it was time to put away childish things, promised to restore science to its rightful place, assured us that no matter how weighty or daunting the challenges confronting us, they would be met. At various times the camera would cut away from Obama to show George Bush looking grim and befuddled or Bill Clinton watching in transparent wonder at the complete and utter mastery displayed by the man he had only last year claimed wasn’t qualified to be President.

It was odd that they saved the poet until after the main event. As a boy I watched the venerable Robert Frost, then in his late 80s, reading at President Kennedy’s inauguration, struggling manfully on even when his lectern caught fire. But even Frost, at the time arguably the nation’s greatest living poet, wouldn’t have been foolish enough to go on after the President. This poet was no Frost, and the crowds quickly began to melt away, with many people shaking their heads in bewilderment.

We took a brief detour to the base of the Washington Monument to see what we might have been able to see had we arrived earlier, then joined the queue to exit the Mall. With only a handful of exit points, it was taking far longer to leave than it had to get there, and we ended up walking all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. I took a penny from my pocket to show Bella Lincoln’s portrait on one side and the Memorial we stood in front of on the other. “Ah, like a Roman coin,” she offered. “They often had monuments on them as well.”

Later that night I told her about my Obama-as-Roman-emperor theory and asked where she thought he would fit in the lineage.

“I see what you’re getting at with some of the later emperors,” she said, “but I think a better analogy might be with Augustus, who pretty much created and defined the institution.”

Normally this would not constitute high praise coming from Bella, who despite having devoted her life’s work to the study of Rome, is almost overtly anti-Roman when it comes to matters of the Empire. But for the sake of our discussion, she was willing to temporarily suspend her disbelief. For this moment, at least, we could agree that the ability of an Augustine Obama to reinvigorate and reshape the American dream might not be an entirely bad thing.

“But what about the potential for abuse?” I asked. “Right now Obama could probably declare himself Emperor-for-life without encountering a whole lot of resistance.”

“I think at this point we might just have to trust him,” she said, her voice trailing off. “He seems like a good man…”

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