Long before dawn, they began descending on Washington’s National Mall—the people and the adjectives. The people came from across America and beyond to secure a place for Barack Obama’s inauguration. The adjectives came from the mouths of approximately 2.96 billion TV anchors on hand to mark the event. “Historic . . . extraordinary . . . really historic . . . truly historic.” In the face of such enthusiasm, Wolf Blitzer had to double down on descriptors, welcoming viewers to “this amazing, awesome swearing-in ceremony.” For some, existing adjectives were deemed insufficient. “This is a monumentous occasion!” CNN’s John Roberts told viewers.
Cable news usually thrives on the oxygen of conflict—two voices rising in sound and fury, signifying nothing except a firm belief in the other’s idiocy. But the emotional power of Inauguration Day was such that right across the dial, TV was a bummer-free zone. When one pundit criticized the cost of the ceremony, he was shouted down by his fellow commentators. When Roberts’ co-anchor Kiran Chetry began detailing restrictions on spectators—no backpacks, no strollers . . . —Roberts interrupted to cut off the bad vibes. “People just brought themselves,” he cooed. “They brought their hearts. They brought their hopes.” No one dared to indulge in snark even when Barbara Bush rushed up ahead of her ailing husband, leaving him to struggle down the stairs on his own.
After several hours, the rah-rah tone actually became a bit much. (It’s a tough call but I’d say the over-the-top moment came when Wolf Blitzer started praising Obama’s penmanship.) But this was a day deserving of wonder, of rhetorical flourish and—because it was broadcast on CNN—of shameless gimmick. From the network that brought you interviews via “hologram” on election night came the revelation that CNN had ordered a shot of the mall . . . from a satellite! Wolf explained: “You’re going to see what this would look like if you were in space”—a view previously glimpsed only by astronauts and the inhabitants of Tom Cruise’s home planet.
Throughout the day, the cameras found many big celebrities and also John Cusack. Oprah Winfrey was there. Dustin Hoffman and Steven Spielberg were there. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney attended in a wheelchair. Apparently, he’d injured his back lifting some boxes he’d taken home from the White House. Let this serve as a lesson to us all: human souls—surprisingly heavy.
The anticipation grew. The smallest event was proclaimed as historic. Anderson Cooper: “That was the last time Hail to the Chief will be played for George Bush.” (Not counting when he forces his housekeeper in Texas to hum it.) Then the moment came, and Obama emerged before two million people with the serene countenance of a man walking not into history but toward the first tee. He seemed unflappable. Nothing seemed to flap him. A thought occurred: all in all, not the greatest day ever for white supremacists.
In the undercard, Joe Biden was sworn in as vice-president on a Bible the exact size of his home state, Delaware. Then, some flapping! Obama appeared to muff the oath of office (thanks to a flub by the chief justice)—but even in doing that, he managed to do it in a kind of adorable way, sort of like when Princess Diana took a mulligan during her wedding vows or when George W. Bush said anything ever.
The night before the inauguration, the news channels were in full speculatin’ mode. Campbell Brown, an anchor so opinionated that she risks inflicting obsolescence on whole ranks of pundits, flatly declared of Obama’s speech: “He wants to be inspiring but he also wants to lower expectations.” Really? That’s a tough balance to imagine: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And unemployment, famine and horrible, horrible disease. Also: Hitler.
Shockingly, Obama ignored Campbell’s televised counsel. His address was a masterwork, and if anything it raised expectations. It lacked a JFK-style refrain but it had a JFK-style tone of get-off-your-assness. Few politicians would dare to lecture the people by quoting Scripture to declare, “It’s time to put aside childish things.” Few would have the confidence to call for “a new era of responsibility” in which Americans respect their duties not only to themselves but also to their world. Fewer still would have the oratorical skill to draw such an effective and inspiring parallel between the darkest days of the American Revolution and the scope of the country’s current global and economic challenges.
In the hours that followed Obama’s speech, there would be smiles, celebrations, parties, a parade. In the months and years that follow, there may be discontent, perhaps even disenchantment. But at this moment, on this day, there were only the words of a man, a President and, most important of all, a leader.
And in the crowd, there were tears.