Obama's Inauguration: TV's Momentary Escape From Absolute Cynicism

A celebration of democracy, even if we all can't get along.
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Before all the pundits came out from both sides of the political aisle to dissect the inauguration speech of President Obama -- returning us to a divided America -- there was a long time on our television sets when it seemed like the force of tradition and democracy were at work, bringing the entire country a glimpse of what a free nation does with its leadership.

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It was, let's be honest for just a moment, actually refreshing and even uplifting.

And then, yes, Fox News got its claws into the speech and CNN and others got their say -- via pundits -- and we returned to our divided nation with our divided news channel loyalties. Which is fine. As Monday proved, we're a free country, we can get as pissy with the other political party as want, and the nation will not implode.

But if you go back to the beginning of inauguration day, even Fox News was into the spectacle of what was described by a number of people as "the celebration of democracy." Since Obama was re-elected, we missed out on that other sentence that TV news people and historians love to spout: "the peaceful transition of power." But here's a line that TV critics love because it's true: Television is our nation's shared experience. Most of the time that's cultural, but it often can be political -- debates, elections, State of the Union, inaugurations, etc. -- and Monday it was precisely that. A political moment that for the briefest time was meant to make us shake off our cynicism and be proud of the fact we have a functioning democracy, a chance to turn on the television and celebrate "we the people and our chosen leader."

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Is that difficult? You bet it is. If you watched the buildup -- and television was up for letting the cameras roll even when it was just a ton of people walking to the event -- you got this mixture of pride and numerous opportunities to roll your eyes or be snarky at the event. I mean, how many people can CNN interview about where they're from and why they came to the inauguration? Yes, some of it was quite moving, but the repetition seemed pointless (or, if you prefer, very familiar for any cable news channel trying to fill time). I would sometimes get swept up in the historical significance of the day (every news outlet did a good job of that, and CNN in particular had a lot of packages about previous inaugurations, etc.), and then a moment later would chuckle as a correspondent tried to find the most profound words to describe the experience while behind her the frame was filled with an endless line of Porta Potties.

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Hey, we're built that way. Watching past presidents and the Supreme Court file in to take their seats cemented the patriotic echoes of the news channels about why the inauguration was so historically special. And then I laughed when I saw Al Franken walk in. So there you go.

But before that, there were cynicism-free and snark-free moments when stopping to watch seemed a very proud American thing to do. And Washington D.C. looked as beautiful as it ever has. In those moments, when we were sharing as a nation the pomp and circumstance and pride of our political institutions, our government structure and our relatively young country's ritual of showcasing its leader, it felt like a massively important moment -- and, for our purposes, a huge television moment.

"This day is Washington at its best," said David Gergen on CNN.

But, of course, there were the moments that brought people out of that idealism. Like, say, when the president's speech was followed up by Kelly Clarkson, American Idol winner. The juxtaposition was, in fact, too easy to mock. Ah, the thoughts that flowed forth. Another easy target was everyone's endless fascination with the first lady's bangs. Or what the Obama girls were wearing. Or, at least on CNN, the unending love of calling the president's car "the Beast." OK, we get it. Saying POTUS is no longer the "in" thing. "That is 'the Beast,' and the first family will be coming out shortly." Got it. Big car. Super-thick doors. Looks like it could drive through a building. The Beast. Let's move on...

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If you were watching from the beginning -- on any channel -- there was an endless amount of chatter about crowd size and silly reports about "what are you seeing" from correspondents littered across the staging area. Well, it turns out they're seeing a lot of people. And they are asking those people where they are from and why they are there. Endlessly.

Another thing about watching for long stretches, especially on the West Coast, was wondering why this all takes place in the morning. Shouldn't this be a primetime event? Most of the thing was wrapped by the time some folks had their morning coffee. Free of those gripping, temporarily unbiased moments, viewers could just, well, nitpick. It turns out a lot of people don't like poetry. Those poor poets trying to match a great speech but not even rhyming. Sigh. And people wore funny hats and unflattering clothes -- all stuff Twitter captured and no doubt were muttered in the loneliness of your living room. Hey, there's Jay-Z and Beyonce. Is that a former Celtic great? Who is that guy looking sullen behind the Obama kids? Oh, so you couldn't show up and be a man about it, Mitt? Yep, the endless nature of it -- historic moment or not -- was ripe for mocking. Wait, the president and a bunch of other people are going to have lunch? And we're supposed to hang around until then?

OK, forget those moments. Forget the signs in the crowd. Forget John King and his computer thing (though, truth be told, King is very good at moments like this). Forget about random celebrity sightings or whether people were paying attention to the president's speech. And definitely forget the partisan sniping (or worship) of its content. Let's back out of all of those predictable moments for one second and remember the fleeting times when watching the inauguration was -- sure, let's say it -- kind of amazing and filled with moments that made you proud to be an American.

That part -- it was pretty damn cool. It's like we were a country again -- together, sharing a moment. As Americans, not Democrats or Republicans or whatnot.

And then it vanished, like it always does.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine