Sorry, but there's still nothing all that funny to report from the bus full of comedians. Close, but certainly no exploding cigar: Somewhere south of New Jersey, one of the bus-riding comedians read aloud from some sort of wireless device news that President Obama—President Obama! first time I've written that! feels lovely!—news that President Obama had signed an executive order that will force a change in lobbyist behavior. Then another comedian, a white guy, analyzed: "That's sorta like saying, 'Stop watcha doin, cause I'ma bout to ruin, the image and the style that you're used to..."
But where was I? Oh yeah. We in the ticketed area had just been ordered to take our seats, and the standing masses outside had good-naturedly heckled us, and we had heckled ourselves, too, and then we dutifully sat down to watch the inauguration ceremony.
I really loved this interplay between the world of the crowd and the world of the privileged. When now-former president George W. Bush was introduced, the crowd on the Mall sang: Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, hey, goodbye. And the polite people with tickets—because, for the most part, one does not get tickets to watch the inauguration up close without having conformed to a certain sort of decorum for most of his or her life, and thus most all of these ticketed people were trying to behave extremely properly—these polite people with tickets just did not know what to do. A scattered few sang along. But the rest smiled quietly, or scowled loudly. When, later, Bush walked onto the podium, the Mall crowd welcomed him into the cold air with more than a million boos. By then, something had broken down in the proper sections of the proper section, and the ticketed people booed right along with them.
After the introduction of the former presidents—cheers for Carter, much louder cheers for Clinton—came a very long pause preceding the entrance of Obama. The crowd on the Mall chanted: O-bam-a! O-bam-a! O-bam-a! Which is a thing to hear, a million-plus voices chanting a man's name, chanting for relief from the last eight years, beating a verbal drum of anticipation. (And, I imagine, quite a thing to hear if it's your name they're chanting.) O-bam-a! O-bam-a!
Then, after the swearings in, came the inaugural address. When I say that I didn't love Obama's speech, or that it was not as great as it could have been, I am thinking of several things. First, I am thinking of the inaugural addresses from the past that I was posting here on Slog in the weeks leading up to yesterday's events. There are some pretty high bars for a new president to meet in that list—Lincoln's second inaugural, Kennedy's only inaugural, FDR's first inaugural—and Obama, by, among other things, allowing those presidents and their speeches to be recounted at the Sunday concert at the Lincoln memorial, seemed to knowingly throw open the door to contrasts between his inaugural address and those earlier inaugural addresses. The comparisons would have come anyway, sure. And yes, Obama professed earlier in the week to being intimidated by, especially, Lincoln's second. But Obama is an orator on par with any of those who have preceded him at the presidential podium. It was not far-fetched to predict (or expect) him to top all that had come before.
He didn't. The speech, with its use of what his team warned in advance would be "plain language," aimed directly for the middle—the political center, the middle-brow, a reception as neither awful nor one-of-a-kind. This is actually not a bad political move for Obama. The more he hugs the center, the more he distances himself from the "aloof and professorial" caricature, the more he talks to the mass audience using familiar language and easy ideas, the more politically powerful he becomes. So, you know, political kudos to Obama for that, but it didn't make, to my ears, a particularly soaring or historically competitive speech.
Additionally, this was a speech without a climax. Maybe others have said this by now. I heard it said a few times in D.C. afterward. But you could feel the crowd—the O-bam-a! O-bam-a! crowd in particular—yearning for a climactic moment, a loud slamming of the door on the past eight years and a forceful enunciation of a new political creed. When Obama closed the door on the past he did it gently:
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.
They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
Proper. Decent. Presidential. But not exactly what the people on the Mall wanted. Similarly, his call to action was nicely articulated but neither earth-shattering nor rhetorically breathtaking:
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.
These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.
What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility.
It was refreshing compared to what had come out of Bush's mouth for so many years—and powerfully so—but it did not arrive as an era-splitting, crowd-roaring moment. I thought the best, and most moving, part of Obama's speech was his presentation of the new American posture in the world. It's long, so I won't excerpt the whole thing. But go and read it, from "Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine..." to "the world has changed, and we must change with it." For me, all of that was an era-splitting, soul-roaring moment. But it was a slow reveal and, based on the crowd reaction, not, as they say, a barn-burner.
Finally: I've watched Obama deliver a number of speeches over the last year-and-a-half. He is clearly more than capable of giving an excited crowd the release it wants. Intellectually and oratorically, he is more than capable of besting FDR's first and coming close to, or exceeding, Lincoln's second. He didn't want to, I think. To give the crowd their desired moment of tremendous release would be to create a void that they would then expect to be filled by immediate change, immediate progress, immediate solutions from the man who had, after all, just given them exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it. "More, please?" people would say.
Better, given the current state of the country, to lower expectations—or miss them entirely—and get the mass audience relating to him as a hard-working, clear-headed, plain-speaking, change-minded guy who is on their side, isn't some sort of Messiah, and won't be unleashing any instant-transformation lighting bolts.
That, to my ears, is what Obama achieved with his speech yesterday, and it is enough. More than enough.
After it was all over, a well-dressed black man seated near me stood, raised his arms above his head, and shouted: "Yes! Finally!" Related: When you're speaking from the proverbial mountaintop, as so many commentators suggested was the right metaphor for Obama's moment yesterday, it is well beyond sufficient just to be calm, and clear, and have a sensible plan for what's next. If that leaves the people wanting more—well, from Obama's perspective, that's great.
My plan for what's next: The poem! And a from-the-bus funny? (Don't bet on it.) Photo above from StrangrFlickr.