Wednesday, 21 January 2009

44th Time's a Charm

"Mr Bush has left the building - feel free to laugh and point"

I watched the inauguration yesterday in complete awe. I am by no means an expert on US politics, but the Washington coverage of Barack Obama taking office almost made me want to learn more. It's such a circus - the religious content spills over everything, the sense of history and ceremony is put forward so theatrically, no one at any moment has the urge to giggle.

Except us Brits, of course. Having a facebook browse after the big event, I found people's statuses surprising; not only the amount of interest this side of the pond, but the struggle between admiration and ridicule, the same struggle I felt whilst watching. Particular moments which inspired amusement included the 'poet' (sorry for the quotation marks, but she read what I can only assume was the ramblings of a stoner with all the emotion and fluency of a Scandanavian sat-nav), Aretha Franklin's performance (I was desperate for an amazing slice of soul, but she sounded forced and over-the-hill, and her shrill gospel riffing clashed horribly with the sombre occasion) and .....forgive me.... Obama slightly cocking up his pledge to protect the office of President. Everyone seemed eager to acknowledge that it was compelling stuff, yet desperate to undermine that feeling with a jibe.

It is not cool to admire America. Especially not in matters of politics and religion.

Actually in the case of Obama's pledging issues, I found it refreshing and poignant that he hadn't been practising it into a hairbrush every night for a decade, it only made the guy seem more human.

I also thought his speech was dignified, eloquent and forceful - I felt he might actually have been the only one not blinded by emotion and patriotism, touching on the bad as well as the good. The most significant thing that kept popping up in the coverage before and after, was a bizarre expectation to hear some 'quotable lines', some snippets of commercial-sounding wisdom that would go down with 'Ask not what your country can do for you...' in the history books. The disappointment when the new President didn't come out with anything bumper-sticker worthy seemed immense.

Is it me, or is that totally missing the point of this supposed change? People want a doer, not a talker, and while Obama's oratory acrobatics have impressed, surely it's his actions that matter? George Bush was your ultimate middle America preacher - lots of 'good and evil', 'our great nation', all of that cute but empty rhetoric. And people still wanted that soundbite from Obama. What he did instead was confront the mistakes of his predecessor, state his aims and try to play down some of that Instant Saviour fever that's been surrounding him since he ran for President. All useful, purposeful and sincere efforts, it must be said.

I felt slightly jealous of the personal connection the thousands of Amerians flooding the Washington monument felt with their new leader - our leaders seem to provide fabulous comic material for panel shows and Private Eye, but we generally lose respect for them before they even come to power. Watching tears run down faces (not just young, not just African-American faces) as he spoke was moving, and not necessarily because of the promise of the man himself. It is that absolute faith that things can and will get better, a total idealism that we are devoid of in the UK. And I'm not sure which attitude I'm more fond of; I adore blunt realism and mistrust blind faith, but we'll never have that feeling of magic in the air on a state occasion. We're too busy waiting for the Duke of Edinburgh to blunder into political incorrectness, for Gordon to flash that less-than-dreamy smile of his, or for Boris to... show up.

There's a reason our history is less animated and thrilling than our transatlantic cousins', why it reads like the classifieds section of Heating, Ventilation and Plumbing News. We don't believe anything anyone has to say, and our politicians know it. Their speeches are unconvincing and bland, they have that hunted look that only Paxman's interrogation can induce... any use of the word Love in its cheesiest, most abstract form (as proudly wielded yesterday by several speakers) would be met by raucous heckles.

I find it fascinating that two countries with such entwined roots can have such starkly different responses to political change. My reaction to the event? Unbelievably pleased for America, while ever so Britishly hoping they don't expect a miracle.