Thomas Cole was an American naturalist painter who lived during the first half of the 19th century. Like Thoreau and others of his time, Cole was inspired by a naturalist idealism which drew its breath from the Arcadian splendour of an unsullied continent. But after a tour of Europe, Cole returned with a foreboding of empire that infused his paintings with a fantasy realism that earned him little favor with critics or the public. He died shortly before the Civil War at his home in his beloved, rustic Catskills.
Having grown up in the shadow of past glories, I have always been fascinated by the generation and decay of civilizations. And what I did not see around me, I could see in history books, such as the fascinating etchings contained in Ludwig Friedlander’s 19th century opus on Life & Manners in the Early Empire. What he, and Tacitus and Gibbon taught me was that, in so far as the application of history is concerned, detecting symptoms is as important as understanding causes.
Among the symptoms that indicate where we stand in the trajectory of history are the ceremonies and celebrations that attend the swearing in of the Chief Magistrate or, as he is more likely to be called, our Commander in Chief.
In a nation without a monarch, it is natural that a certain amount of celebration and hoopla will be generated around the inauguration of a new administration but by and large, throughout most of our history, these have been gaudy but low key affairs typically consisting of a denominational service of choice, an address, a parade, and a few invitation-only public parties. As for the rest of us without connections, we could buy trinkets, wave little flags, go to a bar to get drunk or just go home.
The ceremonialization of the presidency began under John F. Kennedy; but even then he kept things fairly low key and we could all be grateful for the all too evanescent savoir faire he brought to official occasions.
With differences in style (or lack of it), things remained at much the same until the election of Ronald Reagan. A symptomatic revolution occurred when he switched the situs of the inaugural from the front of the Capitol to the rear. The imperialization of presidential style had begun.
In tandem, the hitherto traditional hoopla of parades and pennants was metamorphosed into a glitzy, multi-media, star-studded, gala-extravaganza, Celebration of Freedom in which we could all co-participate and co-share our hope, unity, optimism and happiness at being Americans. Of course, as of 2002, these and like carnivals of popular culture and patriotism were held under the watchful surveillance of security copters and kevlar padded police, but apparently none of the multitudes that crowded into the fenced off Mall let this detract from the unifying and uplifting stimulus of the moment.
It was thus with some passing and idle curiosity that I wondered if President Elect Obama would return the Inaugural to the front of the Capitol -- in symbolic evocation, of course, of Abraham Lincoln. But as the multitudes crowded onto the Mall before the Lincoln Memorial for the Pre-Inaugural, Inaugural Address and Star Studded Evening Gala Prequel, I noticed that the change remained the same.
For all our sakes, I wish Obama well; but I am not going to watch the Inaugural, because I have already seen it.
(click to enlarge)