Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It was the minor moments that counted

One of the very best things about today's inaugural ceremony was the closing prayer by Rev. Joseph Lowery, a veteran of the civil rights struggles of 40 years ago. Lowery, who has more gravitas in his little finger than the simpering Rick Warren does in his entire body, gave an eloquent benediction that made one mercifully forget the clumsy "poem" by Elizabeth Alexander that preceded it, gave the most honorable and dignified presentation possible of the new President's commitment to govern the nation by the ideals of his faith, and, at the end, erased Warren's comically condescending attempt to be inclusive to Jews and Muslims.

As to dignity, I don't know what possessed the Chief Justice of the United States, who is my age, to act in a way that was just this side of the president of a local high school student council, overwhelmed at the opportunity to be at a grand event and misquoting the oath of office to the point that Obama, self-possessed as always, was reduced to staring at him in dignified, waiting silence, until he got it right. I can only hope that Roberts, who seems to have a well-deserved reputation as a distinguished jurist, admired by right and left alike, is better at conducting sessions of the Supreme Court. Speaking of the Supreme Court, it was interesting, as Aretha Franklin ascended the podium, to see the brutish mug of Antonin Scalia right behind, her, staring out at the world with his customary look of belligerence and self-complacency.

Warren, who doesn't belong within 10 miles of any occasion to which the words "grand" or "solemn" might be attached, reminds me of someone who intends to sign me up for a multi-level marketing plan and, when he learns that I prefer reading, assures me, with a wink and a nudge, that he can probably get me a good deal on a set of Reader's Digest Condensed Books (so you can get through them faster!). His prayer did, indeed, contain some good things about the hopes and struggles of the American people, but it was destroyed by the cringe-inducing climax, in which he said "I pray this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus," etc. Technically, one can't fault a Christian minister for offering a prayer in the name of Jesus, which is all but a formal theological requirement (although fellow-Protestant Lowery simply ended with "Amen"), but to assume, as Warren must have, that he would somehow make Jews and Muslims feel better by including Jesus's Jewish name or the name by which he is referred to in the Koran (where, of course, he is referred to as a prophet only and not worshipped as divine) was astonishing in its fatuousness. There are times, as Warren perhaps has yet to learn, that the best way to show awareness of something is a prudent silence.

Obama himself gave a competent and workmanlike speech, as he always does, though little in it rose to the level of anything that could be called inspirational, and I can only assume that he had let Al Gore's speechwriter contribute a phrase or two when he ran into that clumsily worded patch in which he said "These things are subject to data, statistics, and analysis"—good God! It's probably a good thing the statue of Lincoln sitting in the Memorial down the Mall could not come alive at that point, or he might have uttered something hardly in keeping with the decorum of the occasion—or, better still, spat a marble gob of tobacco juice into the Reflecting Pool to give that part of the speech a fitting response. I turned the TV off after about 12 minutes, reflecting that watching Obama speak reminds me of what Emerson said about the elder William Pitt: "It was said of the Earl of Chatham that there was something finer in the man, than in anything he said." Obama inspires, all right, but it is by the impression he makes, more than by what he says. There was more applause when he appeared than there was during the speech itself (indeed, the camera caught his brother-in-law suppressing a yawn as he sat behind him!). Nevertheless, he said one thing, at least, that was extremely important: that we as a nation repudiate the belief that we must sacrifice our ideals for the sake of security.

Aretha Franklin's appearance was symbolically important, but the measured, majestic 18th-century musical phrasing of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" hardly suited her rather informal performance style. For my money, one of the best parts of the ceremony was the brief instrumental ensemble that included Yo Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, a female pianist, and a black clarinetist, performing an arrangement by famous movie composer John Williams of themes from Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. Once again, today's arrangement wasn't exactly right—Williams had a fine opportunity, which he seems to have missed, to have also included a theme built on a black spiritual—but the performance seemed to be a musical reflection of how our new President seeks to present himself and his proposed government: cool, simple, elegant, direct, drawing from history but arranging the themes in new ways, a blending of different voices, a performance executed without flaw. It seemed to me that it was that performance, as much as his own inaugural address, that set the standard by which he will be judged.

© Michael Huggins, 2009. All rights reserved.

No comments: