There are some events that we, as a nation, decide are of sufficient importance that we have to go outside and stand there in variable weather while people sing the national anthem at us. Graduations. Certain sporting events.
But the inauguration lays it on thicker than most. It is always cold and miserable. And we have to listen to Speeches and Poetry and Patriotic Song, three pastimes that used to be big in the 1850s but have dropped off starkly with the advent of Literally Anything Else You Could Possibly Do With Your Time.
Today I sat right next to the band, in the precise area of the audience where it appeared that you were being addressed by a number of Distinguished Foreheads. President Obama was the only speaker I could assert with any certainty was not secretly Ronaiah Tuiasosopo.
Democratic (with a small d) pomp is always slightly awkward. Monarchies, especially the older ones, have a flair for this sort of thing, not to mention obscure titles and piles and piles of ermine robes and heraldic symbols that come in handy in parades. Scratch a dictatorship, and you will find someone throwing parades. The less free your regime, as Christopher Hitchens once noted, the more likely it is make people march in tight formation, singing anthems.
Democracies are fundamentally opposed to this sort of event, on principle. March around singing anthems? Have you heard our anthem lately?
Francis Scott Key was, if the song he left is any evidence, some sort of horrible sadist who enjoyed watching us straggle up to the Rockets’ Red Glare and the Bombs Bursting in Air, secure in the knowledge that this used to be a drinking song. Say what you will about France, at least it does not have the word “spangled” in its anthem’s title.
There are only three people alive who can render the Star Spangled Banner remotely singable. All three of them are Beyonce. Fortunately, she was on hand this time. So was Kelly Clarkson, who did a lovely rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” that made me almost forgive her for “From Justin to Kelly.”
And what about the inauguration poem? I liked it, on reading it. But the thing about standing and listening to a non-rhyming poem is that you have no indication of when the poem is going to end. This is an unnerving experience. Robert Frost’s poem at the Kennedy inauguration was only fourteen lines. This one was a full 69.
These are the official traditions. But the unofficial ones are just as honored: the standing querulously in the cold in themed merchandise. So much for organized pomp. Hand us some buttons!
You can tell a lot about a president by the unauthorized merchandise that gets sold around him. Last time around, it was all the solo images, gazing hopefully into the vague graphically-designed distance.
Now it’s all about the family. The bags with Malia and Sasha and Michelle. The posters with Michelle and Barack Obama gazing soulfully into one another’s eyes. That iconic retweeted hug after the election.
Today, too, there were the PhotoShopped “Dream Come True” sweatshirts depicting President Obama and Martin Luther King, and the t-shirts with a PhotoShopped handshake proclaiming: “Past meets present.”
President is a good office if you like seeing your face on t-shirts. But these t-shirts drove home a side message of the election, which is that if Obama was elected in 2008 on the tide of an idea, he was reelected because of who he is in context as a person. Even as his policies provoked heated argument, he retained high approval as a father and family man. And that is the man on the bags. That is the man America opted to reelect. It’s not the Icon Writ Large. It’s the person we have come to know: a father, a husband, a man capable of getting Beyonce to sing.
That’s all the pomp we require.