January 23, 2009


We'll finish up inauguration week with this non-story that nevertheless made it to the front page of The New York Times:
The somber, elegiac tones before President Obama’s oath of office at the inauguration on Tuesday came from the instruments of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and two colleagues. But what the millions on the Mall and watching on television heard was in fact a recording, made two days earlier by the quartet and matched tone for tone by the musicians playing along.
Lest any right-wing blowhards see this as cannon fodder, I should point out that George W. Bush did the same thing. I heard John Harbison, who in addition to his composing, is president of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, tell this story: the Fund got a call from the Bush inaugural committee, who wanted to do an arrangement of "Fanfare for the Common Man" for heraldic trumpets (you know, the kind you always see in movies about the Roman Empire—hmmm). Anyway, they replied no, we'll license the original, but no arrangements. So at the inauguration, a recording of "Fanfare for the Common Man" was piped in while the heraldic trumpeters played, well, nothing. (Actually, given the Copland Fund's disinclination to allow occasional arrangements, I wondered if Williams' choice of "Simple Gifts" was not just an homage, but a deliberate replacement for Appalachian Spring.)

Given what little regard I've held for the rest of the previous administration's actions, the fact that I found that merely an amusing story is a good sign that I don't think there's much to last Tuesday's sleight-of-hand, either. Am I in a minority in not expecting presidential inaugurations to conform to the dictates of the Dogme 95 movement? But then, I've always regarded the theatrical nature of politics as intrinsic to the practice, not a dishonest added layer.

This is not to say that politics is nothing but stagecraft, but that effective politics is policy and stagecraft working together. It's been interesting to watch Obama's approach to stagecraft, especially the way that, as he's gotten closer to power, he's muted his talent for rhetorical flight: his convention acceptance speech was more sober than his keynote in 2004, and his inaugural address was more subdued than either. Obama seems to have an instinct for a fundamental rule of political theater: the inverse relationship between the effortfulness of stagecraft and the perception of substantive policy. Compare, for example, Bush's Bruckheimer/Simpson "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier adventure with Dwight D. Eisenhower's telegram announcing VE Day.

In fact, while Obama has been garnering comparisons with JFK, I think Eisenhower might also be a useful model. Eisenhower is an interesting case: someone with a mastery of language (he wrote speeches for MacArthur, for gosh sakes) who nonetheless primarily used that mastery to avoid obvious rhetorical effects rather than indulge in them. (Even Ike's famously rambling press-conference answers, according to his press secretary, were purposeful obfuscations rather than aphasic incompetence.) The results weren't always satisfying—I wish he had taken an earlier and stronger position against McCarthyism, for example, and his approach to civil rights was sometimes excessively cautious—but, on the other hand, by the end of his term, McCarthy was gone, and Brown v. Board of Education happened on his watch.

Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts"—which I rather liked, for the record—was certainly more introspective and modest than triumphal, which might signal just how much of the "No-Drama Obama" culture of the campaign will be imported into the new administration. If they adopt some measure of Eisenhower's minimalist style, that'll be just as much of an aesthetic choice as non-stop stirring inspiration would be—there may be a deliberate attempt to save the rhetorical high notes for particular situations. (After all, Eisenhower's characterization of "the military-industrial complex" probably wouldn't have resonated so deep if he had been prone to tossing off a lapidary phrase like that once a day.) But given that even newsreel footage of FDR's fireside chats were re-staged and re-recorded, unless the purpose is fraudulent content, I'm not that concerned whether it's live or on tape.

Update (1/23): Mark Meyer offers an inaugural box of linguistic candy.

1 comment:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Very good points, but see my blog posting on the subject about where the inaugural committee's decision process diverged from one of the Obama Administration's stated goals.