Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Quiet Moment

The day itself passed uneventfully, 1.75 million people gathered to witness history live as it happened. No one was arrested. No one was killed.


Ah, but the event!


Every Tuesday, I go to a local Irish watering hole. They don't serve food, so I pick up a salad along the way. On a good day, a day when there's a soccer game or baseball game, there might be a dozen, maybe 20 people. I figured it was the safest place to watch the inauguration.


When I got there, there were 150 people crammed into the bar. The proprietor, a tall balding man, had taken a moment to reserve me a table. I prefer sitting at the bar, but there was no way I'd get that close. I understood how those folks at the back of the Mall felt.


I took my seat in front of a 50" screen LCD TV. CBS was on. I arrived about 11:45, because I had figured the suckers would wait until noon, not realizing there was a whole pageant ahead of that.


I sat through Rick Warren's prayer, a wholly unctuous event, to be sure, but not too bad considering how the liberals around me had portrayed this hate-monger. Was it me, or did his invocation take longer than Obama's speech? I'm not sure.


A brief musical performance later, Biden takes his oath. The bar is suddenly silent. History has that kind of draw for people. You want to focus someone's attention on something, make it truly historic. In his own way, Biden made history, being the first Catholic (remember, this is an Irish bar) to become Vice President.


"So help me God…"


The bar erupts in sustained applause. If Biden had been able to do that on the stump, I have no doubt he would have been taking the last oath of the proceedings.


I'm munching on a leaf of Romaine as Yo-Yo Ma and Itzahk Perlman trade riffs during a Quaker hymn. Marvelous. The quartet practically fulfills Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt's vision of "a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple".


Finally, the big moment: Obama's swearing in. Not a movement in the bar, not even a mouse. The flub by Roberts, egged on in part by Obama's initial confusion, gets a bit of a chuckle, and a mulligan. Both men oathed for the first time. I guess that was to be expected. It was humanizing for both.


"So help me God…"


A thunderclap of applause, followed by literally ten minutes of hand-clapping. The bar exploded. By now I've finished my first adult beverage and the barkeep wanders over across forty feet of floor space to offer another.


I tip well, what can I say?


As Obama begins his address, the barkeep whispers in my ear as he delivers my second pint, "I could never imagine this place being this crowded and this quiet," followed by a snarky reference to all the soda drinkers. The rookies who come in only to watch big events and feel obligated to buy a Coke.


It's true. It was silent. I mean, dead silent. September 11, that was quiet. Even the streets of New York took on an almost Sunday morning quality to them.


Today made that day look noisy. Cab drivers pulled over outside. People stopped in the street to watch thru the window.


The speech.


Rumour has it that when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, perhaps the single greatest piece of oration in American history, no one applauded. Lincoln himself told a bodyguard that the speech, like a bad plow, "won't scour".


Historians tend to think that this speech so stunned and captivated audiences that the dignified silence that came after Lincoln was finished was more an acknowledgement that they wanted more, so impressed were they.


Obama's speech, in many ways, was like that. I found it interesting that some of the applause lines fell sharply flat of applause ("What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply," leaps to mind). You could see in Obama's eyes the expectation that people would leap on that, but they did not.


The speech was that impressive. I clapped at that line, but I may have been the only person in the world to have done that.


The theme of his speech was clear: maturity. Often, I'm reminded of the fact that when the Clinton's cleared out in 2001, the Bushies warned the planet that "the adults were in charge now."


A boast from a fraternity house full of boastful adolescents. Sigma Fucka Duck.


Obama didn't boast about wresting the country from immaturity and leading them to maturity. He spoke honestly to us. If you wonder why there were so few applause breaks, this may be the linchpin: we had never been talked to this honestly and openly since Harry Truman. Even Jimmy Carter couldn't pull it off this well.


He spoke of service and duty to our nation, much as JFK did a generation before. He spoke of sacrifice for the good of others. He spoke at length about the troubles facing us, not in a tragic, dramatic way, but in a realistic and honest way. He spoke to us, not down to us. He treated us like adults. He presumed there was a basic comprehension not of what has happened, but that the future is uncertain.


He led, in short. Contrast that with the speech Bush gave after 9/11:


And I pray they [ed. note: the children] will be comforted by a Power greater than any of us, spoken through the ages in Psalm 23:


Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.


All fine and dandy to invoke the Deity. To be sure, Obama did it often enough in his speech yesterday, but to leave the fate of the nation into the hands of a God whose ultimate goal is by definition unknowable is not leading.


It's taking the easy way out. Compare Obama's passage on terrorists:


"And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, 'Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.' "


…with Bush's:


"The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge -- huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong."


If you had given these passages to me blind, I would have guessed Obama's was Bush, the strong, single-minded obsessed steely eyed defender of America and Bush's was Obama's, the supposedly weak-kneed liberal pansy, all touchy-feely. Obama simply said that when the dust clears, Al Qaeda will not exist, but we will. He didn't need to scare anyone, or make them feel more uncertain than they already were.


Indeed, his entire speech yesterday sounded to me like a point by point repudiation of the Bush administration: the "patchwork heritage" of our diverse society, open hand not closed fist, chiding the indifference to suffering (an indirect reference to the poor trapped by Katrina, I thought, but very carefully couched), but especially piercing was the "return to the values" passage. Fair play, courage, honesty.


During the primary, one criticism I had of Obama was that actions speak louder than words, and I still hold to that.


But I gotta tell you, these were some loud words!