Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Obama's inauguration: The hottest ticket in American history

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma will have a role at Barack Obama's inauguration on 20 January in Washington
Barack Obama

At least in this great country of theirs the inauguration of a new president is relatively swift, because we all know how interminable everything else about the process is; the primaries, the general election campaign and even the transition — all so long. Even Grant Park is a misty memory.

And for some of those enjoying the pomp, circumstance and traffic that will engulf Washington DC on 20 January, the moments of real thrill will be briefer still. It may be the instant Barack Obama is sworn in, his hand on the same Bible used at the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, or when he utters that one line in his speech from the steps of the Capitol that all of our grandchildren may or may not always remember.



Others will be waiting for the traditional parade of bands, cheerleaders and armoured cars down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the new home of Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha. Or maybe this will be the part that will get the hairs on your neck standing to attention: the lifting off of Marine One from the other side of the Capitol complex, bearing George W Bush to a new place where he can no longer do any damage. Or not much.



Or your highlight could be the moment you arrive at one of the official inaugural balls and scan the room to determine that indeed no other woman is wearing the same dress as you.



But wait: examine more closely and they have contrived even to make the inauguration last longer than it should. Think of it as a wedding (America, do you take Barack Obama...? I do, please, at once), and actually it begins today. In fact, were you to be ensconced in your bed in a fancy hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue this morning you would probably be mildly shocked to look outside and see the big parade passing under your window right now. Yes, it's dress rehearsal day in Washington DC.



Just about everything that will happen on Tuesday week is under way now. A stand-in will take the oath of office on a stand-in Bible. An understudy Marine One will whisk away the person who will be pretending to be Mr Bush this morning, and the military bands will play "Hail to the Chief".



For the Obama folk, planning the inauguration has been a tug-of-war between humble and grandiose. On the one hand, it was always going to be big – America, the country of slavery, civil war and Rodney King, is swearing in a black commander-in-chief, after all. The expectations have gone through the roof, as have the predictions for the number who are expected to make the pilgrimage to Washington to see it all happen. For the first time, the Mall, extending from Capitol Hill to the Lincoln Memorial, will be open for its entire length for people to watch. As many as four million may turn up.



No one knows what the global television audience will be. Most watched, probably, will be the address, which is still being perfected by Mr Obama's 27-year-old chief speech-writer, Jon Favreau. Everyone expects it to be good, perhaps even in JFK's league.



"The pressure is on Obama. The videotape won't lie," Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, said last week. "Can Obama rhetorically match or exceed JFK when he finishes the oath-taking? Obama's inaugural address won't determine the success or failure of his time in office. Yet as Kennedy demonstrated, it can do a great deal to rally a nation."



Nor has Team Obama been able to resist turning this inauguration from a one-day to a multi-day affair. Even if today's rehearsals don't count, the hoopla proper actually begins on Saturday, when Mr Obama and vice-president-elect Joe Biden show up at the train station in Philadelphia to begin a symbolic train ride to Washington, tracing exactly the journey that Lincoln took before his swearing in. (Yes, there is an Abe theme here.) Thousands are expected to crowd along the tracks as the president-to-be whooshes by in a carriage with more bomb-proof armour than a US army Humvee in Iraq.



In Washington, the festivities will get under way on Sunday with what is loosely described as a welcoming party at the Lincoln Memorial end of the Mall, with Mr Obama attending. Bruce Springsteen will play on the Mall. Monday, which will also be the Martin Luther King public holiday, has more events with Mr Obama, including an indoors eve-of-inauguration Youth Concert. Jay-Z, the rapper superstar and one of Mr Obama's biggest boosters during the campaign, will also be playing a concert in the city.



Militating to keep the inauguration more modest has, of course, been the economy (in 1913, president-elect Woodrow Wilson ordered the inaugural balls dispensed with entirely) and Mr Obama's professed egalitarianism.



They have tried it on the fund-raising side, with new limits on how much corporations and lobbyists can contribute to the inauguration's costs. (One side effect: the organising committee has so far raised about $25m but needs $20m more.) And Mr and Mrs Obama's first stop after dark will be the so-called Neighbourhood Ball, with reasonably priced tickets made available primarily to residents of Washington. Thereafter, the First Couple will make the traditional whirlwind tour of all the other official balls, dancing together at each, before finally repairing to their new home.



Finally, the morning of 21 January will arrive – and Mr Obama can begin the task of governing. And America can relax in the knowledge that there won't be any more presidential campaigning for... well, at least 18 months, surely. Where is Iowa on the map again?

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