Was the inauguration a coronation?
My friend Katty Kay tells the Daily Beast that the inauguration makes her feel unwell.
Why am I coming over all queasy this week? Oh, yes, it must be coronation--sorry, inauguration--week in the federation of the United States. So this is why you booted us out a couple of centuries ago. You simply replaced the pomp and ceremony of hereditary monarchy and with the pomp and ceremony of elected monarchy. OK, you didn't opt for the dynastic duo of Bush and Clinton, which really had us scratching our crowned European heads, but the fanfare with which Caroline Kennedy has entered the political picture suggests your infatuation with royal families is still not over
This week Washington feels like London in the run up to one of our own grand royal events. Hostesses twitter on the phone, or just Twitter, to woo A-list guests to pre- and post-inauguration parties. A-list guests measure their piles of invites in feet, not inches (forget the endangered rain forest, this event justifies a few more trees), while the lowly populous frets over inaugural road closures and inconvenient security measures. The problem is, you've adopted circumstance without the scandal. Our royals do it much better.
My wife drew my attention to the piece, possibly expecting me to agree with it.
I have been moaning in the past few days about the pre-inauguration celebrations and the way they have been covered. I dare say I used the word "coronation". When Tom Hanks came on the car radio the other day, reading lines from Abraham Lincoln with theatrical gravity to a musical accompaniment--right after another tribute to Michelle--I moved to switch it off. Lincoln for people who find the words too dull, I whined; this endless gushing, this abject prostration before politicians and celebrities would have disgusted him, and the founders as well. My wife (an American) said the radio was staying on, the Brits were no longer in charge, and I could walk if I wanted.
As I write, CNN is showing pictures of Barack and Michelle in their evening wear, intercut with animated analysis of the outfits the daughters wore for the big day. This evening my living room has been taken over by American friends. Switching off this drivel is out of the question if I don't want to be thrown out of my own home.
So I can see what Katty is talking about. Nonetheless I think she gets it wrong. America reveres its system of government much more than any of the individuals who occupy its highest office--more, even, than it loves Barack Obama at the start of the honeymoon. This is the crucial thing.
No doubt deference to this constitutional order can be carried too far. (Thinking about what the constitution permits or forbids often seems to stand in for thinking about what is wise or ethical, regardless of what the constitution might say.) Nonetheless this document and the system it describes is a kind of living miracle. Americans feel that they own their government; the British, I think, have no such feeling. The inauguration is partly, if not mainly, a celebration of popular sovereignty. There is nothing of this idea in Britain's infantile obsession with the royal family. How could there be? The monarchy is an affront to the very notion.
Katty thinks Britain might be on to something in retaining a powerless monarchy as a dedicated vessel for the nation's "ceremonial hopes" while regarding the prime minister as no more than hired help. No need to stand up for the man when he walks in. There's freedom.
But what are these "ceremonial hopes"? Another word is "illusions". And as it happens a British prime minister has far more unchecked power at home than any American president. In all the ways that matter, the implication that Britain is better at keeping its leaders in their place is nonsense. Katty says: "Barack Obama has a four-year rental on the White House. We would do well to remember he doesn't possess the freehold." Really, this is something no American needs to be reminded of, least of all on the day of the inauguration.
Yes, the celebrations started far too early and they were covered with the pitiless maniac intensity of the American broadcast media. And yes, the country is infatuated with brainless celebrity--but which country is not? Britain? Please.
As I said in my previous post, I thought the inauguration itself was a splendid and uplifting occasion: the United States at its best and most admirable.