The Podium and the Mall

Penning lines about the inauguration, columnists look both ways

We have a new president. And after yesterday’s inaugural festivities, op-ed columnists set to work to define what it was that they saw. Some focused on Obama—his speech, his promises, his overwhelming responsibilities. The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman hopes “he will swing for the fences” and “remember to run the bases.” David Ignatius at The Washington Post parses the speech and likes that the “new president didn’t pull out the rhetorical stops.” “It was a plain speech, like those of early American presidents, better savored in the reading than in the listening,” he writes.

Harold Meyerson, also at the Post, bids farewell to the age of Reagan, and says that “Obama’s speech was the first presidential inaugural to address the narrowing of American prosperity and to announce the intention to broaden it again.” Doyle McManus at the Los Angeles Times writes that Obama was “anything but aloof” and had the guts to ask “Americans to sacrifice for the common good.” And the NYT’s Maureen Dowd (who took a break from party-throwing to write a column), downplays (at least some of) her sass and pens a few solid lines about Bush’s departure and Obama’s inaugural speech:

I’ve seen many presidents come and go, but I’ve never watched a tableau like the one Tuesday, when four million eyes turned heavenward, following the helicopter’s path out of town… It was like a catharsis in Greek drama, with the antagonist plucked out of the scene into the sky, and the protagonist dropping into the scene to magically fix all the problems. Except Barack Obama’s somber mien and restrained oratory conveyed that he’s no divinity and there will be no easy resolution to this plot.

She and John Kass (of the Chicago Tribune) also both pick up on the main Bush-directed dart in Obama’s speech: “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”

But any parsing of Obama’s speech and his promises is really talk of what they meant and continue to mean for the crowds—those that voted him into office, those that filled the National Mall, those that he described in his speech. So even as the above columnists peer at Obama’s words (former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, for one, opines, “Yuck, in so many ways,” and deems the speech “rhetorically flat and substantively interesting”), they also cede some ground to their own—and the country’s—reactions.

Kass, with impeccable comic finesse, writes about his foot:

It was so cold Tuesday that my toes curled in my black oxfords like boxed shrimp in your grocer’s freezer. Yet as I listened to him, my foot got warmer, and so help me, so did the rest of me. So go ahead, accuse me of being a Hopium Eater, but it was one heck of a speech. It was clear, a thoughtful man talking, a man hoping to unite his country even as he could feel the weight of the Earth settling upon his shoulders.

He also remembers to investigate that thing called perspective: “From where I was sitting, less than 100 feet from him, I turned around and looked out into the National Mall, where more than a million of our countrymen stood, compelled to witness, and I felt guilty that I was so close and they so far, in that rippling sea of believers.”

Not so Dowd, whose eyes looked forward (while maintaining peripheral vision), enabling her to note that “under the platform, near where I sat, Denzel Washington, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and P. Diddy looked on proudly” as Obama was being sworn in. Well, celebrities are citizens of hope too.

In contrast, Yvonne Abraham writes about people who couldn’t make it to the inauguration—or even to a viewing of it. Describing “vast swaths” of her city that stood still at noon yesterday to congregate at house parties and bars, the Boston Globe columnist took a moment to describe “another Boston [that] could not witness this remarkable moment”:

None of them, not the laborer, not the security guard, not the construction foreman, not the lunch cart worker, could see our new president promise them the nation would endure the storm together, because they are in the midst of it.

Despite the cloying rhetoric, Abraham serves up a reminder that not all is celebration and speeches.

Post columnist Ruth Marcus tries, awkwardly, to sum up her reaction to having a black president: “I understood, on an intellectual plane, the significance of electing the first black president. Yet, until he was sworn in, I don’t think I fully absorbed its overwhelming emotional force.” She lists some snapshot moments she’s amassed over the past few months: noticing an Obama poster on the wall of a classroom full of black children; reading obituaries of folks who lived in our country’s segregationist past; standing next to the lunch counter (which has been transported from the Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C. to the National Museum of American History) where in 1960 four black students sat down and asked to be served; hearing Aretha Franklin sing “Let freedom ring.”

It’s a well-intentioned attempt to flesh out the significance of the moment, but with its earnest list of Reasons Why Having A Black President Means So Much, it also illustrates what MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow recently called “a racial awkwardness grace period” wherein it’s “OK to stick your foot in your mouth if you have your heart in the right place.” Ruth Marcus (and ahem), Roger Cohen, join the party.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.