Monday, January 19, 2009

A Timely Celebration for the Times

There has been a fair amount of discussion (sometimes contentious) on Web sites such as Truthdig over whether or not the celebratory excesses surrounding the Inauguration of Barack Obama are in order in a time of economic crisis. However, when compared beside similar excesses, whether they involve giving awards in the entertainment industry or holding political conventions, We Are One demonstrated that, once again, HBO knows as much about the craft of putting together a good show (particularly one that is broadcast live) as it does about lining up the talent for that show. I had not planned to watch this broadcast, but my wife really wanted to see it. Since it began while we were having lunch, I joined her for the beginning and ending, dropping in for samples during the middle. While I am not big on this particular line of entertainment, I must again emphasize that noun "craft" to HBO's credit. The whole event held to schedule impeccably and with minimal hitches. One does not encounter that often these days, and it testifies to the simple principle that even the most joyous of celebrations still benefit from serious planning.

Phil Gallo was impressively efficient in getting his review to the Variety Web site, but I did not give it a serious reading until this morning. Gallo is not of my generation; but I was glad to see the extent to which he was moved by what I felt was the high point of the entertainment schedule:

The afternoon's penultimate moment again found Springsteen, joined this time by Pete Seeger and a different choir, singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," a song once viewed as a leftist national anthem that the Boss rightfully referred to as "the greatest song written about our home." The perf was a moment of community with no star turns, a song that worked off of a collective voice of the people onstage and the thousands gathered around the reflecting pool on the Mall. It was the song that did the best job of reinforcing and galvanizing the thoughts that had been expressed throughout the day and the Obama campaign.

The only thing missing from this account was the reminder that Seeger had been blacklisted during most of the Fifties as a result of the government's obsession with "Un-American Activities," whose abuses of civil liberties now pale in comparison to the revival of such practices in the name of "Homeland Security." Seeger was the one guy on the program who had experienced the previous generation of fear-based threats to the Constitution; and here he was, still standing and still singing (if in a far weaker voice) as we are now emerging from the efforts of the Bush Administration to repeat that particularly ugly stage of our national history. Put another way, Seeger was the one guest at this party who could teach the guest of honor a thing or two about "the audacity of hope."

Note that I called this "the high point of the entertainment schedule." Gallo did not write anything about Obama's address near the end of the party. I do not fault him for that, since this was not part of his "entertainment beat." Still, while the "serious political reporters" are probably gearing up for tomorrow's Inaugural Address, this speech was definitely one for the books. After all, it was delivered the day before today's King Holiday on the same site that Martin Luther King had delivered one of the most important speeches of the twentieth century (with no assistance from HBO or any other major entertainment corporation) to a gathering as impressive as the one that turned out for this "people's celebration" of the Inauguration. However, while King mustered all of his rhetorical powers to inspire us with his dream of the future, Obama focused on the present, choosing to carry a torch passed not by King but by Franklin Roosevelt.

Very early in the show, Laura Linney introduced the footage of Roosevelt's first Inaugural Address when, from the depths of the Great Depression, he reminded the country, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." After eight years of George W. Bush raising our fears to levels of hysteria and then getting away with abuses of power by treating us all like scared children, Obama demonstrated, once again, his skill at addressing us as sensible adults. He stressed that we should work towards gradual improvement, rather than expecting miracles; and he reminded us that, whatever the improvements might be, there would also be setbacks. Most importantly, he maintained the theme that improvements will come when we work together to achieve them (even if he did not dwell on the problem that coming up with good ways to work together will probably have its own setbacks). None of these points were new, but the joyous mood of celebration may have provided the right context for us to be reminded that the most audacious hope of all might be that the United States is about to return to the world of sensible and responsible adults. This was an occasion to appreciate the global extent of HBO coverage, because, beyond the level of the entertainment factor, this was a message for the entire world to hear.

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