A Fittingly American Ceremony, Without Much Pomp


A grayer, grimmer, more experienced Obama kicks off his second term by bringing back the Hope.


Just hours before a group of well-heeled Obama supporters with silver tickets trooped across the spot, a crew from the Masonry Division of the Architect of the Capitol was wiggling a loose paver back even with grade above the stairs of the West Front of the building.

Down below, a skein of wires flowed around the scaffolding that held aloft the still and video cameras of the visual press; on the other side of the door at the bottom of the construction was the platform area for the seated press, spouses of members of Congress, staffers and honored guests. Among them: a group of aged Tuskegee airmen, snug under khaki blankets in their wheelchairs, wearing the kind of glasses I've seen on my dad and come to think of as Veteran's Administration dispensary-style.

Though I arrived in D.C. in Clinton's first term, this was the first Inauguration I've attended. I'll have more to say later about the speeches -- not only the first time a president has used the word "gay" in an inaugural address, but likely the first time the word "namaste" was spoken from the inaugural stage (by poet Richard Blanco).

But first a word about the ceremony itself.

Television makes everything look more glamorous. It is a trick of the light.

There's a lot of talk on a day like today of the pomp and ceremony of state. But there was something charmingly plain about the inaugural ceremony itself. The fanciest thing about it was the heavy paper stock for the tickets (for those who had tickets), with their high-tech security hologram, and the enormously complex identifications badges required for Capitol access. (To get one, you had to go to the Government Printing Office for a fingerprint scan, then sit there until the F.B.I. ran your prints through their databases back in West Virginia, clearing the agent in Washington to sign off on your credentialing form.) The security perimeters that have turned downtown Washington, D.C., into a semblance of Tampa or Charlotte during the national political conventions may be complicated affairs to staff and build, but the American security state when it descends upon a town also has all the majesty of a T.S.A. screening station, perhaps in unconscious honor of our Puritan ancestors' rebellion against finery and design.

At the inauguration, those who had seats all sat in the same black plastic "Eventwares" chairs ("as low as $10.95" online). Many stood near the stage, as well as above it, and in standing-room only throngs that stretched back to the Washington Monument and beyond. They'd begun their day early, then stood or sat in the cold for hours (though the day began promisingly bright, the temperature dipped and the crowd started shivering by noon) to catch a direct or jumbotron glimpse of a ceremony that itself lasted less time than the wait for it. Cellphone signals crashed, and thousands of Twitpics and texts were doubtless left unsent.

Reporters compared notes about Inaugurations past -- that time it was 10 degrees colder, or that time it rained and the ground below the high-dollar donors turned to mud -- and complained of the challenges of finding a story on a day designed for, as one put it, "Savannah and Norah and Matt Lauer."

Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, gave the tradition affirmation of America's peaceful transfer of power. "How remarkable that this has survived for so long in such a complex country with so much power at stake -- this freedom to vote for our leaders and the restraint to respect the results," he said.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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