CNN Goes to the Ball

After the event, it was time for the pseudo-event.

See all of Slate’s inauguration coverage.

The little hitch in the oath of office looked something like a beauty mark on the news shows’ recaps and wrap-ups. This was the one element of the whole pageant that wasn’t strictly symbolic, and with the chief justice and the president gently bungling it, there was a welcome speck of imperfect humanity at the core of highlight reels that might have otherwise felt unreal or pompous or postcard-perfect. Didn’t one of the meanings of Obama’s inauguration have to do with facing America’s flaws?

There of course had been a great televised quest for meaning. Standouts among the talking-head historians included righteous Douglas Brinkley, measured Michael Beschloss, spunky Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Eric Dyson, who’s positioning himself as TV’s go-to black intellectual for the Obama era, a Cornel West with better flow and fewer flights of fancy. BBC World News dispatched a journalist to capture the tearful joy of a black community in Alabama, and he reported back with that faint tone of condescension that can overcome Brits talking about American race relations. CNN, as ever, toys with its electronic playthings with a Christmas-morning fervor; Tom Foreman caressed the “Magic Wall” more pointlessly than ever, first sliding the logo of the National Park Service across a map of the Mall, later tracing the parade route in minute detail. And then after four days of giving us indelible images and useful historical insights—along with the usual trivia, clichés, and platitudes—the news networks were running on empty. Perhaps the turning point came while they were waiting for the Obamas to enter the reviewing stand: On Fox News, analyst Larry Sabato declined an invitation to discuss who might escort the first daughters when they needed to go tinkle.

Thus, having wrung all the meaning out of the event, TV was left with a kind of rubbery pseudo-event to bat around for another six or eight hours. CNN, committed to the big picture, tracked the locations of the inaugural balls in a 3-D rendering. On ABC’s anticlimactic presentation of the Neighborhood Ball, the Obamas first danced to Beyoncé’s rendition of “At Last” and then to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” as mangled by an all-star supergroup. MTV had the Youth Inaugural Ball, where, in the most arresting shot of the night, every attendee lifted a camera to snap the new president, and, annoyingly, the crowd chanted his name at length, a bit of idolatry best put in storage until the 2012 campaign. On CBS, Katie Couric brought us the political choreography of the Commander in Chief Ball from somewhere behind her eyeliner. While debriefing Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan, NBC’s Brian Williams confessed to being disturbed at the keenness of his interest in the rag trade. He was alone in voicing such compunctions.

Pitiably star-struck, the Washington press corps had spent half a week chattering about the pleasures of rubbing shoulders with Bruce Springsteen and Ben Affleck out on the town. By 11 p.m. Tuesday, they were so strung out on celebrity that it was a coup to snag screen time with a third-tier Baldwin brother outside the Creative Coalition Ball. Soon, NBC was reporting from the BET party, and Fox News reporters were interviewing MTV News reporters, and Larry King was threatening to allow that tuneless hustler back on air, at which point it was time to go to bed in hopes of a brighter tomorrow.

—Posted Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009, at 2:01 PM ET

ESPN ran ABC’s feed of the inaugural ceremony, following it with a memorable live report from its own Jeremy Schaap. It is possible that Schaap understood the mood on the Mall better than every other journalist on the scene. It is also possible that he either had been carried into madness by the rigors of the moment or was engaged in a subtle self-parody. “At the end of the day,” Schaap said (with that cliché lending credence to the prank theory), “I think a lot of people here, as excited as they were to see him inaugurated and take the oath of office, were so cold that they just wanted the inaugural address to end.” He said it was unclear how many athletes were on the scene (“There are a few million people out here. It’s hard to spot everyone”), and this also seemed conceivable as a dry joke. But how to read Schaap’s flight to the comfort of statistics? “He didn’t challenge William Henry Harrison’s record in 1841. That was an inaugural address of over 8,000 words.”

The home-shopping network QVC didn’t cover the inauguration itself, but one of its personalities was stationed around the corner from the parade route, where he chatted with a smooth-jazz maestro and tried to move some units of Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement, a two-CD set that can be yours for $18.57 plus shipping and handling. Then, at the 4 o’clock hour, QVC aired The First Lady’s Jewelry Collection, the lowlights of which included a “brand-new multi-cross charm bracelet inspired by Abigail Adams” and a “gorgeous simulated emerald ring inspired by Dolly Madison.” Confronting the horrors of “The Mary Todd Lincoln Collection” inspired a longing for “The Betty Ford Liquor Cabinet.”

—Posted Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009, at 7:33 PM ET

When MSNBC announced that it would beam its inauguration coverage into Starbucks outlets in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, my counterpart at Time gaped in wonder, “Seriously: Did David Brooks think up that promotion?” At the outlet closest to my TV set, that seemed to be a possibility. Brooklyn Bobos did their Bobo thing—graphic-design work, drinking chai tea after yoga class, blocking the aisles with their infernal double-wide baby-strollers. The audio flooded the store, but the screen was mounted so that the guys behind the counter had the best view. “Ooh, there’s Hillary and Bill,” one said around 10:30 a.m., wiping down a cup-sleeve stand as various dignitaries entered the Capitol. “My homeboy, Bill.”

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, Chris Matthews toiled steadily to provide MSNBC’s critics with sufficient ammunition for the new administration’s first 100 days. Before Matthews had seen Obama’s speech, he’d already ranked it with the inaugural orations of JFK and FDR. The Los Angeles Times caught him explaining why he was receiving so many smiles from the crowd on the Mall: “Let’s talk straight here: This is the network that has opened its heart to change. … These people watch this network.” His excitement did not go unnoticed by his colleagues, with Keith Olbermann stiff-arming that statement: “He’s Chris Matthews, and he approved this message.” Later, Al Roker implied that Matthews sensed the infamous thrill up his leg because the new president looks good without his shirt on. His pride seemingly wounded by a weatherman, Matthews sat there trying not to look like he was stewing.

TV One—which generally plays second fiddle to BET as a black-focused cable network but is easily outdoing it today—has no pretenses to journalistic objectivity, so there is no point in chiding Joe Madison for wearing an Obama knit cap while anchoring its enthusiastic coverage. But let the record reflect that panelist Al Sharpton lost significant street cred, in the moments before the ceremony, in mistaking Aretha Franklin for Barack Obama’s mother-in-law. Dude was James Brown’s tour manager and he can’t identify the Queen of Soul?

—Posted Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009, at 3:30 PM ET

It fell to the Disney Channel to start the serious milking of the inaugural festivities for every Nielsen family they’re worth. Disney, which paid handsomely for the exclusive rights to air a children’s concert, saluted military families, promoted volunteering, remembered Martin Luther King, and facilitated a William Howard Taft fat joke on Monday night’s Kids’ Inaugural: We Are the Future. But mostly it branded its own carefully cultivated pop acts as Obamariffic agents of change. The Obama daughters and Biden grandkids teenybopped heartily to the Jonas Brothers. The musical highlight was Miley Cyrus’ “ Fly On the Wall,” which seems to quote a riff from Blur’s “ Song 2.” (Read Josh Levin’s account  of the concert.)

Elsewhere in the entertainment world, the showbiz-news programs foamed with anticipation. Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart served up Beyoncé sound bites and Ben Affleck sightings from the White House lawn. Access Hollywood marked its territory as a keen observer of first lady fashion (“Today it was a more casual Michelle in a belted cardigan as she did volunteer work. …”). The Insider reported that Neiman Marcus had set up a boutique in the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel on K Street. Its pampering station apparently features a Manolo Blahnik shoeshine stand and a “drive-by bow-tie service.” Every viewer will get worked up about the circus around this ceremony at his own pace, and this is where I draw the line: If you can’t tie your own bow tie, then go get your mommy to help you.

—Posted Monday, Jan. 19, 2009, at 9:50 PM ET

Monday’s Oprah Winfrey Show was a commemorative plate of a special episode taped at the Kennedy Center. Oprah was sharing her pre-inaugural excitement in a soft-focus way, stressing self-improvement and allowing star power do its thing. “There are a lot of people who feel like I do,” Oprah said. “So let’s get started and welcome Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher!” You can’t fault Demi for getting choked up while talking about her hopes and dreams, or Ashton for not choosing this as the day to start combing his hair.

On tape and by satellite, other celebrities helped Oprah celebrate. The singer Usher, urging public service, quoted Aristotle (“We are what we repeatedly do”), which somewhat outclassed the wisdom offered by Justin Timberlake (“We all of the sudden have swagger, America”). Tonight’s cocktail chatter about the appearance of Joe and Jill Biden will concern her candor about his career choices, but for Oprah’s purposes, the best part of it was Joe—can I call you Joe?—getting touchy-feely when talking about his mom.

The capper was the world premiere of “America’s Song,” an original composition by David Foster and the disturbingly omnipresent “America’s Song” is most notable for featuring lyrics more bland than its title. joined Faith Hill, Seal, Mary J. Blige, and the inevitable Bono in raising his voice at the chorus: “America / America / America is beautiful / (Yes it is) / My America / Your America / Our America / Is beautiful.” “This came together in a week,” Oprah enthused. That long, huh?

Oprah will again broadcast from D.C. on Wednesday. The promo promises a guest line-up unprecedented in the annals of broadcasting: “Forest Whitaker, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Jon Bon Jovi.”

Posted Monday, Jan. 19, 2009, at 6:42 PM ET

John Mellencamp 

HBO variously invested We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration—the Sunday-afternoon concert it produced at Lincoln Memorial—with solemn ceremony, buoyant pluralism, handsome edutainment, and just enough embarrassing moments to remind us that the marriage of politics and showbiz will always have its difficulties. Was George Lopez really the biggest Hispanic male star available? Would it be possible to take Jack Black seriously in this context? Did Shakira vamp around a bit much while singing “Higher Ground” with Stevie Wonder? Yes, and no, and what of it?

During readings, Hollywood A-listers (with a few politically minded celebrities of a lesser wattage) spoke of past American leaders and of core democratic principles that honored “the ongoing journey of America to be America,” as Queen Latifah said therein. The musical numbers ranged in tone from heavy pomp—Tom Hanks intoned his reading over the booms and tinkles of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait”—to incongruous revelry. * During a performance of Bob Marley’s “One Love” by Herbie Hancock, Sheryl Crow, and the well-meaning, ever-jabbering, the camera caught Sasha Obama regarding the show with bald skepticism. The group might have convinced the assembled throng of adults that this was the right place for something like a Rasta jam, but 7-year-olds are much tougher to deceive.

But some performers were born to transcend the awkwardness of moments like this and make the heart soar. John Mellencamp jangled out “Pink Houses” with a choir behind him as some effective heartland propaganda—radiant photo portraits of schoolteachers and firefighters—slid across the screen. During U2’s two numbers, Bono—immutable Bono, with his wraparound shades and a messiah complex that is by now as endearing as Joe Biden’s hamminess—played to the camera rather than the crowd. And there is something wrong with you if you were not moved by the sight of the formerly blacklisted Pete Seeger, heroically spry at age 89, standing next to Bruce Springsteen and leading a singalong of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Banjo in hand, Seeger sparkled like the sands of America’s diamond deserts. Nothing twinkled more brightly than he that day, except maybe Shakira’s tights.

Posted Monday, Jan. 19, 2009, at 12:01 PM ET


The cable-news networks launched inauguration coverage at 10 a.m. on Saturday, setting the table for half a week of theater and ceremony and hoping to set the tone for half a year of programming. “This event helps build the next six months,” MSNBC exec Phil Griffin told Variety last week.

In which case, we should expect MSNBC’s Hardball to evolve into a cineaste’s salon where host Chris Matthews riffs, freestyle, about Hollywood classics. As the president-elect’s train pulled into Union Station on Saturday evening, that glamour junkie ceaselessly invoked Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Something sweet gleamed in Matthews’ starry eyes as he compared Obama’s cool to Ray Milland’s. But if Matthews was going to go all TCM, then he should have mentioned The Tall Target, Anthony Mann’s 1951 noir about a detective guarding Lincoln on his pre-inaugural train ride to Washington. Given the networks’ frequent chatter about Obama’s allusions to Abe—and their slightly paranoiac reports on security—the omission glared like a Fox News anchor’s highlights.

What was the Fox News team thinking beneath their dye jobs? The network was figuring out how to celebrate the inauguration while still feeding meat to its red-state base. When CNN and MSNBC broke from covering the train ride, those networks often featured analysts and historians talking about coming power plays and policy challenges and puppy acquisitions. When Fox broke away, it almost always inveighed against government spending. At one point, anchor Neil Cavuto did a virtuoso job of filling time with bad locomotive-related puns, recognizing that his audience wanted to “rail and rail” against the bailout bill. Fox joined the other two networks in placing cameras on Obama’s train, pointing them out the windows and, via unreliable broadband, airing choppy, smeary footage of what was happening outside. This was, of course, ridiculous, though it did have the advantage of making Delaware look fractionally less dull than usual.

—Posted Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009, at 6:55 PM ET

Correction, Jan. 19, 2009: This article orginally misspelled the name of Aaron Copland. (Return to the corrected sentence.)