Inaugural Style

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From Abbeville’s The White House: Its Historic Furnishings & First Families

A few of you may have noticed that Barack Obama was sworn in yesterday as the 44th president of the United States. We will leave political commentary in the capable hands of other blogs and instead provide an aesthetic appraisal of the ceremony in all its aspects.

The swearing-in: Charmingly awkward. Obama seemed to trip over his lines, with considerable help from Chief Justice John Roberts. Reminded us of a groom stumbling over the wedding vows—and in much the same way, actually pointed up the significance of the moment. Foiled the news networks’ desire for a nice, tidy sound bite.

The inaugural quartet: Shaker folk music by way of Aaron Copland by way of Hollywood composer John Williams: no mistaking which country we’re in here. The arrangement was dignified and the performance as lovely as you’d expect from all-star quartet Gabriela Montero, Anthony McGill, Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma.

The inaugural poem: The less said about this, the better, although we realize it’s hard to write a good occasion poem on relatively short notice for an audience of several billion.

Aretha Franklin’s hat: Triumphant.

The speech: Quite successful, especially for the genre. Contained no instantly quotable rhetorical flourishes, but was well-delivered (obviously) and skillfully argued in the passage about rejecting false dichotomies (e.g. “we ask…not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works”). The subtlest touch was actually the Biblical quotation. Describing America as “a young nation” is a staple of almost all inaugural addresses, but Obama provided a highly original twist by citing Paul’s famous words in First Corinthians: “When I became a man, I put aside childish things.” Left unsaid, but surely meant to echo in the audience’s mind, was the rest of the passage, with its summons to faith, hope, and especially, charity. The poignancy of a fairly young president telling a nation in crisis to grow up may well be the best-remembered aspect of the speech.

And finally,

Bush’s exit: More hasty than graceful.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Inaugural Style

  1. aa

    Hey now, Barack didn’t stumble! It was Chief Roberts who mixed up the word order and Barack hesitated momentarily while he weighed saying the line correctly (and embarrassing the Chief Justice) or repeating what he had been fed (and flubbing his special-Lincoln-bible-entree into the presidency). He chose the later.
    Aretha’s hat was indeed triumphant.

  2. abbeville

    You’re right with regard to the mixed-up line, but it also looked as though Obama jumped the gun a bit in saying his first line (“I, Barack Obama…”). Perhaps both men were suffering from a slight case of nerves?

  3. Meg

    I watched on a Jumbotron at the Mall, and one highlight for me was a momentary cut to a sullen GW Bush during Obama’s not-terribly-well-veiled criticism of the outgoing administration. It got a big laugh from the crowd, at least on the far side of the Washington Monument. Also, I wish they had all been wearing crazy hats, it was wicked cold out there.

  4. abbeville

    I agree, although now that you mention it, the first President Bush WAS wearing an enormous fur hat, as well as an outrageous purple scarf to match his wife’s. (“When I am an old president, I shall wear purple…”) Sounds like his son should have gone with very thick earmuffs, though.

  5. I liked the poem!
    Does this mean I must surrender forever any hope of being the Stylish Reader of the Week?

  6. abbeville

    Aw, not at all, Janet! We didn’t think the poem was embarrassingly bad, just kind of bland—but we’d love to hear other opinions. What did you enjoy about the poem? Any favorite passages?

    And never fear, other chances to be Stylish Reader of the Week will be forthcoming in the very near future.

  7. True, it wasn’t Happiness by Jane Kenyon (pause here for a moment of pure gratitude for Jane’s amazing life and body of work) which is The Best Poem of All Time, but it was spiffy for a Poem On Demand.

    I’ve ordered a copy of the special edition Graywolf is publishing so I can read it closely. Meanwhile, anything with “Many have died to bring us to this day” is too true to be merely sentimental.

    And I shall leap, stylishly of course, at the next opportunity to be Reader of the Week.

  8. President Obama stumbled because the Chief Justice messed up the order of the oath. The President was saying it correctly, but stumbled because he was supposed to be repeating what the Chief Justice said.

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