I have covered inaugurations for 20 years but never saw the sight I just saw: a seamless mass of humanity, millions strong, stretching from the West Front of the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. From my vantage point below the podium, I looked west across what looked like a vast field of wildflowers, many of them a pale, delicate red—red from American flags.
When Barack Obama arrived, they let out a loud cheer that echoed back and forth across the Mall. When he spoke, they waved their flags and the whole vista seemed to sparkle faintly in the bright sun.
The launch and now the arrival of the Obama presidency both happened in the cold. I was in Springfield, Ill., in February 2007 when he announced his candidacy. It was beautiful but bitterly frigid that day. Less than two years later—an astonishingly short time in politics—here was Obama again in the cold, once again declaring his belief in hope and in the idea of the American community.
The conventional wisdom is that Obama has risen on the strength of speeches, and it is true that he has given some memorable ones—especially the one he gave to the Democratic convention in 2004. But sometimes the words he utters mean less than the tableau he creates. Was that true today? Perhaps.
I was expecting more soaring emotion than I heard. On economic and domestic policy, Obama warned repeatedly of "crisis" and the need to confront "unpleasant choices." His language was spare, and his vision of the hard work and sacrifice—from the pioneers and slaves to our warrior heroes—was inspiring, but in a sobering way.
Eschewing poetry or Lincoln, Obama resorted to old movies for lines. The "pick yourself up, dust yourself off" language was from a surprisingly pedestrian source: a 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie called "Swing Time."
Was there an easily encapsulated slogan or idea in the speech? We heard no New Deal, no "nothing to fear but fear itself," no New Frontier. Instead there was the man himself and the scene of hope and renewal he had created.
Obama found more urgency and emotion when he turned his attention to foreign policy. There, it was less about sacrifice than about a new vision—one diametrically opposed to that of the man he replaced. His words were forceful and less clinical. We would not apologize for our way of life, he said; he pledged to seek a "new way forward with Muslim nations, and challenged leaders "who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent" to "unclench their fists." If they did so, he said, they would find a new spirit of cooperation and respect.
It was that new vision of foreign policy that led to Obama's candidacy and, in fact, to his nomination. The economic situation is his most pressing challenge, but his heart is in a new vision of America in the world.
And there is nothing wrong with that.