American Beauty: The Inauguration as Medium and Message

President Obama taking the oath of office as his family looks on (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The American Revolution was a revolt against “kingly power,” that, upon succeeding, evolved into a gamble that ordinary people could rule themselves without a monarch.  The republican government the Framers devised nonetheless featured a novel office—that of chief executive—who, being the choice of the populace, would function as the nation’s symbolic head for four years’ time.  Without some such “people’s sovereign,” the Federalists believed, the new government would have trouble securing the affections and loyalty of the citizenry.  The ritual of the inauguration has taken shape around preoccupations like these.

The inaugural was held on the west front of the Capitol (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Relative to the pomp surrounding British monarchical rituals, for instance, American inaugurals are low ceremonies indeed.  Since John Adams’s early disastrous experiments in aping the British monarchy, presidents and their families have avoided ostentatious costumes or trappings offensive to democratic sensibilities.  Officials take the oath of office wearing ordinary street clothes, allowing the “majesty of the people” to take center stage.

The president listening to the inaugural proceedings (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The preference has been strong for an open-air ceremony.  George Washington set the tone in 1789 with his swearing-in on the balcony of Federal Hall (then the seat of Congress) in New York City.  Though harsh weather has sometimes forced inaugurals inside, their location has generally been selected to allow them to be witnessed by largest possible number of people.

A vast crowd came to the National Mall to take part in the 2013 inauguration (Photograph from PBS television coverage)

Over time, the inaugural has evolved into a full and appropriately expressive ritual, especially through the device of the inauguration poem (a custom begun and carried on mainly by Democratic presidents) and the performance of American song.  In the right hands, the inaugural’s simple components can be coaxed into a whole of considerable beauty and eloquence, as was certainly the case with the inaugural  last Monday.

The ceremony was beautifully orchestrated, planned with an understanding of how its elements could combine.  From invocation to closing prayer, Obama’s second inaugural presented an aesthetic and patriotic vision of the American essence, receiving its purest expression during James Taylor’s simple rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ on acoustic guitar.  At the same time, several complex political messages were effectively conveyed.

1. Ours is an inclusive, multiracial republic.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic (Photograph of PBS coverage)Visually and verbally, the inaugural moved beyond tokenism to demonstrate the diverse and inclusive character of the US today.  The crowd gathered on the Mall, as well as all those with an official part in the proceedings, showed the fruits of the country’s long struggle to make good on its egalitarian principles and dreams.  The reality of integration and inclusion was embodied in the faces of the military, in the diverse complexion of officialdom, and in all those clergy, singers, poets, musicians, and orators, who were called on to inspire, entertain, instruct, bless, and thrill us that day.

Beyonce leaving the inauguration, where she performed the national anthem (Photograph of PBS coverage)Coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, the inaugural paid homage to the nation’s centuries-long quest for civil equality, encompassing the struggle to end slavery, extend the franchise, welcome the immigrant, and end archaic practices that are discriminatory.  Progress toward these goals, though incomplete and painfully achieved, is evident, and our maturity as a pluralistic country was joyfully ratified on Inauguration Day.

2. Religion is central to American civic life, but not in the way Christian conservatives imagine.

Religious sentiment (of a peculiarly American kind) suffused the inaugural proceedings.  Its historic role in inspiring Americans to preserve and strengthen the Union and to persevere in the face of injustice was humbly acknowledged.  In the ceremony, religion figured as a fountain that Americans must continue to draw on as they seek to discern the right and the true.

Myrlie Evers-Williams somber invocation and Reverend Luis Leon’s benediction extolled the blessings of religion as a unifying and transcendent force, binding together and uplifting the American people.  Driving the point home, the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir wowed the crowd with its rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a Civil War-era song about militant righteousness and Union, written by northern white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.

Was the inaugural satisfying in part because it sketched the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of the Obamas’ own deep personal faith, a faith that opponents have often assailed, belittled, and misrepresented for the sake of political gain?  At the same time, the intense but inclusive spirit of the inaugural seemed a rebuke to the more narrow and divisive Christianity that social conservatives espouse.

3. The condition of the people is the President’s main concern.  Maximize their security, happiness, and well-being, and national  prosperity will follow.

President Obama delivering his inaugural address (Photograph from PBS coverage)Jeffersonian thought has been so marginalized in political discourse that commentators hardly recognize its essence today.  President Obama’s repeated use of phrases and ideas from the Declaration of Independence in his speech signaled his interest in governing in a Jeffersonian vein.  It’s an interesting idea, but what does it mean?  For Jefferson, it meant providing a framework for the individual so that the the individual could flourish.  Jefferson was not anti-government—he was the architect of many enduring and expansive national projects—but he believed chiefly in that government necessary to protect and promote a prosperous and self-realizing citizenry.  When it came to big projects, Jefferson was all about innovation and efficiency.

4. The relationships born of our civic life enjoy a priority over those of corporations or the economy.

The Capitol as seen from the Washington Monument on January 21, 2013 (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Throughout his career, President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the potent role of citizens in political life.  David Brooks, though admiring the inaugural address, regretted the president had not devoted more of it to the budget, the markets, the economy, or free enterprise.  We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that government must be mainly about these.  But are these truly the chief interests of a republican government?  Are these the interests that need protecting?  American business will continue to find a way, whether the Obama administration puts its might behind that project, or not.  The president believes that investment in human capital is the chief requisite to making the economy thrive.  As if to underscore the point, inaugural poet Richard Blanco offered a lyrical, Whitmanesque view of American work in his spare yet impressive poem, One Today.

5. We are all citizens, and, as citizens, must fulfill certain transcendent obligations consonant with the great power reposed in us.

 The best part of the president’s speech was its conclusion.  Pointing to oath-taking as a unifying ritual, the President likened his oath to others we have taken, whether as schoolchildren, government officials, new citizens, or members of the military.  The promises we make to our country bind us together in a way that transcends the claims of self-interest and party.  The president closed with an appeal to each of us to continue to make our voices heard.

The president looks back on the Inaugural crowd (Photograph of PBS coverage)

MLK: Memorial and Man

It’s fun to imagine what our departed greats would think of the posthumous images we erect in their memory.  Some of those enshrined on the National Mall in DC would be startled or surprised to find how we see them.  Lincoln, famous in his own time for telling naughty stories too risqué to be repeated in polite society, would be amused to find himself so completely ennobled and now comfortably ensconced in the best society.  Jefferson, a great lover of the Enlightenment, would probably like his memorial’s Neo-classical trappings, but would he like being stuck inside forever that way?  He seems too cut off from Nature, there in his rotunda, which could scarcely please a man who so loved to garden.

And what about the new kid on the block, Martin Luther King, Jr.?  He’s probably more than a little bit miffed, and I don’t blame him.  His new statue is ugly, and he deserves better than to be remembered as a stern colossus cordoned off alone, with nothing but two marble icebergs for company.  I can hardly imagine a memorial duller or more inapt.  Here was a great artistic opportunity, and one bungled badly.

King’s was a congregate life.  His struggle, his aims, his achievements can only be appreciated by comprehending them in relation to a larger society.  He was nothing if not part of a collective, a figure who, because of his gifts and his particular conceptualization of the problem of black Americans, became the symbol and voice of a larger brotherhood, the leader of a larger tribe of suffering humankind.

He became great by giving voice to, and raising up, a great part of our society, and his labors, no matter how refracted by his own personality, were memorable and laudable because of his relation to other, more ordinary, Americans.  The photographs of King that stick in my mind are all teeming with crowds, with phalanxes and teams: King addressing the millions during the March on Washington; King marching with Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, and others who were the civil rights movement’s first generation of strategists and leaders; King walking arm in arm with his wife Coretta or a friend.  Even the famous image of King taken during his imprisonment in the Birmingham jail takes its significance from the fact that he had been temporarily ripped from his proper place as a leader of a movement and a people.  King’s invariable impulse was to place himself before, to be seen by, and to connect with masses of American people.

Not only was King essentially a creature of his race, a champion who gave voice to, and would not let us forget, the deplorable position of blacks within American society, but his too-brief life was almost inconceivably kinetic and dramatic, particularly during what would prove to be in his last years, between about 1963 and 1968, when he had really just reached maturity.  During these years, King worked, and spoke, and moved, incessantly.  In retrospect, his life appears to have been one long succession of sit-ins, bus rides, marches, interviews, mass meetings, huddles, parades, and rallies.  He was the leader of a movement, and that movement moved.  King moved hearts, but, more crucially, he moved millions of ordinary American citizens to act, and, in so doing, he achieved what few American leaders have ever accomplished as brilliantly.  Whatever their accomplishments, neither Lincoln, nor Jefferson, nor Washington ever led a popular movement of the sort that Martin Luther King helped will into being.  While these other leaders attained greatness while occupying positions at the top of America’s social and political hierarchies, King was a great dissident, leading an outsider movement that was amorphous and purely voluntary.  In that sense, his greatness came solely from his relationship to other people.

The crowded, kinetic character of King’s life is precisely what his new memorial fails to capture or even acknowledge.  King’s very death was public and dramatic, occurring at the center of a homely crowd scene; it, too, is occluded.  King as depicted on the Mall appears isolated, mute, static, even uncaring, yet this King couldn’t be farther from the passionate, embracing, vibrant, and, above all, articulate character whose words and deeds are impressed on our memories.

It’s unfortunate that King’s life and place in history have been immortalized in a way that separates King out and partakes of the “great man” theory of history.  The pressure to figure King in a style resembling that of the great whites he would join on the Mall must have been considerable.  Yet a representation truer to the significant chapters in King’s struggles for civil rights and referring in some way to the larger social and political context in which he labored would have been preferable.  King did not emerge, inexplicably, out of nowhere, like some force of nature: his identity as an activist and intellectual was inextricable from the major traditions and figures that influenced and inspired him.  King’s hard-won pre-eminence as a civil rights leader derived from his ability to frame arguments about racial justice in terms of democratic principles and Christian precepts that most Americans, regardless of race, understood and revered.  He was also deeply influenced by the example and ideas of the great Indian pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi, whom King traveled to meet early in life, and from whom he adopted the key principle of non-violent resistance.

King’s contributions to American life do not hinge solely or even principally on his steadfast determination, as his sculptor has argued; many blacks of that time were similarly determined.  King’s great contribution lay in bringing together a rich complex of ideas through which his people’s disruptive yet urgent crusade for equality could be legitimated and realized.  “Why We Can’t Wait” was one of his famous titles.

Choosing to depict King’s situation and achievements in a more explicit way would have been risky as well as more artistically demanding.  King’s importance cannot be understood without acknowledging the perdurance in America of race hatred, any more than his success can be explained without reference to religious faith, including that of non-Christian spirituality.  The modern era furnishes many instances of memorials—from David’s Death of Marat to the Vietnam Memorial—that are at once simple, truthful, and moving.  Had the creators of the King Memorial harkened to such examples, they might have arrived as a more fitting and less sanitized tribute to one of our greatest modern men.