Although President Obama’s second inauguration made for a cheerful and occasionally stirring stretch of live television Monday, it’s still easy to get lured over to the argument for staging something on a far lesser scale, especially when it involves incumbency. The images from Sunday’s official swearing-in at the Oval Office efficiently gave us all we truly needed to see, including a glimpse of the first lady’s new bangs and a requisite bit of comic relief from Sasha Obama. (“You didn’t mess up,” she congratulated her father.)
Then the big to-do comes along and you once again become a believer in the spectacle of it all, leaving the TV on all day, even during that fussy bestowing of “gifts” at the midday Capitol luncheon.
Get a load of those Lenox vases presented to the president and the vice president and their wives with a tight smile by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). What a strange and old-fashioned act of kabuki, as the Obamas and Bidens got up and made a show of admiring the craftsmanship. What on Earth are they supposed to do with those? (Next on “Storage Wars: Delaware” . . .)
Amid the vases and Beyonce dramatically ditching her earpiece as she reached the wicked part of our national anthem, and the quickly-tweeted screen grabs of Michelle Obama throwing shade in the direction House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) during lunch (don’t forget the screen grabs of Cantor making what appeared to be a “what the . . .?” sneer during poet Richard Blanco’s essay-like poem), it was time once again to ask the question that never goes away:
Are you better off than you were four years ago?
I can answer that with an emphatic yes, if only because the inauguration is a much better experience on TV than it was in all those years I spent freezing my tail off as a Style reporter.
Remember the acrimonious street spats in the W. years, with alterna-hippies screaming four-letter words at heavily-armed National Guardsmen and women in fur coasts? Ugh, I do. Remember the post-apocalyptic vibe of the Interstate 395 tunnel in 2009? Yep, been there, did that. Fought my way through the zombies to a reserved seat that was so close to the Capitol that I had to dodge trumpet spit and look straight up the whole time — and only saw a sliver of the brim of Aretha Franklin’s hat far above; had to look behind me to gawk at Beyonce and Jay-Z. I was always in the middle of everything, which meant I also missed everything.
All this time I should have been on the couch. Here, channel surfing from CBS to Fox News to ABC, C-Span and the rest, the inauguration makes a whole lot more sense as a pure, American ritual. You notice more of what you’re supposed to notice instead of hallucinating an empty Port-a-Let just ahead.
On TV, the day-long closing of the church-state divide is remarkable — and troubling, one supposes, to those who feel suffocated by religiosity: There are the prayers in Jesus's name, the close-up of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, the Biden family’s Hogwartsesque Bible. That’s who we are. NBC anchor Brian Williams asked viewers early in the day to park their children in front of the TV and make them see: Look, kids — the grownups can get along. They can sing together toward the sky and try to give one another goosebumps of goodwill. They give one another vases. It’s a Whoville moment. “It’s about time they saw Americans behaving well,” Williams said.
On TV, the inauguration’s beauty and relevance come through crystal clear. A trancelike state settles in, hour after hour. It has the zenlike tedium of a marathon. The only thing that compares to this level of rapt watching (unfortunately) is a royal wedding. The inauguration is a challenge for TV as we currently know it, because it is painfully slow and exactingly regimented, and just when a host or guest will think of something relevant to say, the control booth shushes them because someone is about come out of a house and get into a car.
And anyhow, there is only so much to say about history and weather and poetry (was that even poetry?) and the bangs. (What will the president say? is followed by two, almost three hours of deconstructive parsing and analysis — what did he mean?) The sight of all those professional talking heads who dominated cable and network news during the arduous 2012 campaign is a most unwelcome one, bringing back bad memories.
Unlike the wisdom in getting to Pennsylvania Avenue early for a spot along the parade route, it is unwise to start watching inaugural broadcasts too early, lest you endure all the filler and the pre-packaged clip jobs from swearings-in of yore, or encounter MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski goading Vogue magazine’s Andre Leon Talley into saying something catty about the fact that Joe Scarborough isn’t wearing socks with his loafers on a January morning, the camera zooming in on Scarborough’s pallid ankles.
On a day like this, I flip channels until one network convinces me that I might miss something if I move on. MSNBC still seemed locked in a November mode. Fox News was doing a so-so job of not covering the day like a funeral. CBS was staid. CNN was all over the place. I wish they’d all done a quicker job of talking to people on the Mall as soon as the speech was delivered, instead of talking to, say, Doris Kearns Goodwin.
C-Span was great for overhearing feeds, such as when it captured and quickly disseminated online the day’s most moving moment, when Obama turned to linger one last time and admire the crowd across the Mall. “I want to take a look one more time,” Obama said. “I’m not going to get to see this again.”
As the day wore on, during the interminable wait for the parade, I kept coming back to NBC, which always seemed to be in the right place, with the right angle, the right sound bite, the right sense of solemnity — but more importantly, humor. This is largely due the dry wit and smooth moves of Williams. He has polished his shtick over time, which has paid off, making him a serious-guy anchor for a “Daily Show” era. Williams can deliberately and wistfully engage his predecessor Tom Brokaw in a serious reflection on the police-state feeling of Washington nowadays and then just as easily (and gently) tease his colleagues about their hats.
By parade time, Williams and his crew were getting punchy — and better still. Williams dared Al Roker, who was positioned near the reviewing stand, to get the president to come over and talk to him. Roker made a fool of himself screaming and yelling at Obama and finally made contact — a thumbs up and an approval of the nice weather. “There you have it,” Williams deadpanned. “The exclusive first interview with the newly reinaugarated president. . . . As [Secret] Service members fill in to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”