TV Networks Capture Sentiment of the Day -- Joy -- at Obama Inauguration

The Obamas escort the Bushes to a waiting helicopter after the inauguration.
The Obamas escort the Bushes to a waiting helicopter after the inauguration. (By Saul Loeb/pool)
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By Tom Shales
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

O, beautiful. Also thrilling, moving and spectacular. Indeed, you have to dip pretty deeply into the well of superlatives to describe Inauguration Day 2009 appropriately.

TV anchors, reporters and commentators groped for suitable words, but no words could really equal the impact of the pictures, most of them -- on the major channels -- in glorious high definition. From a sweeping wide shot of the Mall and its surrounding streets and iconic buildings -- a vast sea of dots representing way over a million well-wishers -- to an emotional close-up of a woman who wore an "Obama" hat on her head and rivulets of tears on her cheeks, television brought history home, immediate and exquisite.

On CNN, cable's network of record, reporters asked loaded questions designed to elicit predictable answers: "How does it make you feel to be an American?" and "What does this moment in history mean to you?" But folks from far and near and in between reacted with earnest honesty to the momentous event, the swearing in of America's first president of color, Barack Obama.

"I think it's the beginning of something new and wonderful for the country," said a beaming woman from Massachusetts, while a former Washingtonian said from near the Lincoln Memorial that to be present for the occasion was "almost an out-of-body experience."

The man had last been on the Mall, he said, for the March on Washington in behalf of civil rights 46 years ago, and so was a woman of about the same age standing next to him. Earlier they were Freedom Riders bravely traveling into the deep South to protest in behalf of equality and freedom.

They were interviewed by Bill Weir of ABC News, who told them after the brief chat, sounding as if he truly meant it, "It is an honor to be in your presence on this day."

Was there an excess of jubilation, optimism and self-congratulation? Maybe, but for this one day of anticipating and celebrating change, no one really wanted or needed discouraging words. By and large, the network anchor and reporting teams avoided overdoing it, with ABC's felicitous trio of Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos making the overall best impression and keeping the best balance between decorum and euphoria.

A major theme for the day was "we're all in this together." Thus did Obama, in his inaugural address, plunge right into the crises, worries and dangers of the moment, with scarcely a hint of floweriness or phrasemaking for its own sake. It didn't seem to matter that his speech was short on florid phrases or hopeful hyperbole; if anything, the crowd gave him points for honesty, even if they would have liked more excuses for cheering.

Stephanopoulos called the speech "tough medicine" and noted on ABC that Obama "addressed the problems . . . right off the bat. . . . He didn't let anyone off the hook" in accounting for America's latest round of dark hours. Cokie Roberts found the speech "grim" but Gen. Colin Powell, serving as a kind of guest commentator for the network, said, "I thought the speech was exceptional," which was pretty much what people wanted to hear.

Powell also said of the occasion, "I'm proud to say that I was tearing up along with everybody else," even though subfreezing temperatures made facial icicles seem a distinct possibility.

Naturally, the coverage was rife with memorable images -- among them the sight of outgoing president George W. Bush and wife Laura being escorted down the Capitol steps to a waiting helicopter by the Obamas. Bush said something that made them all laugh, as if in defiance of the gloomy conditions Obama is inheriting.

The ceremonial part of the day didn't go without the proverbial hitch. The chief justice of the land, Bush appointee John Roberts, screwed up while giving Obama the oath of office. Obama, who appeared to know the oath by heart (and why shouldn't he?) gently waited for Roberts to realize he'd goofed, though Obama had slipped up slightly by starting to repeat the words too soon.

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