Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thoughts on Inauguration Day

The first presidential inauguration I remember was that of John F. Kennedy. My 9th grade journalism teacher lugged a small TV set into the classroom, and we were all mesmerized by the flickering black-and-white image of a handsome young man in formal dress taking the oath of office. Yes, I distinctly recall him uttering the famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Uh oh, I thought. What exactly does that mean for me?

Television made me, along with my fourteen-year-old classmates, a participant in those inaugural ceremonies. (Less than three years later, it also made me a participant in Kennedy’s funeral.) Today, of course, we all expect that our big-screen TVs, not to mention our computers and even our smartphones, will allow us to witness history, up close and personal. An inauguration like that of President Barack Obama is, perhaps first and foremost, a major media event.

And in some ways it’s also a Hollywood event. The main stars of the day are politicians, but Hollywood stars also help raise the pizazz level. In the lead-up to yesterday’s ceremony, Eva Longoria was the host of an inaugural concert at which Rita Moreno, Jose Feliciano, and other Latino celebrities performed. The inauguration itself featured patriotic songs sung in respectful but contemporary stylings by James Taylor (the Sixties singer who was also featured in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop), Kelly Clarkson (who shot to fame as the first winner of American Idol, then went Hollywood in the vapid From Justin to Kelly ), and Beyoncé (the drop-dead-gorgeous chanteuse who acquitted herself nicely in Dreamgirls). I also caught a glimpse of an inaugural ball at which the First Couple was serenaded by Jennifer Hudson. Hudson, of course, quickly moved from American Idol finalist to Oscar winner for her Dreamgirls supporting role.

But in watching the inauguration I was struck by one other TV memory that shows how times have changed. During the Sixties, the three big television networks loved to rack up audiences by hosting special events. In the turbulent year 1967, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte was the sole guest on a major TV special starring a popular British singer, a petite blue-eyed blonde named Petula Clark. The two taped a poignant anti-war duet, in the course of which she spontaneously touched his arm. A representative of the sponsoring car company, Plymouth, was present during the taping. When he saw the touch, he became apoplectic. Says the show’s director/producer Steve Binder, “You’d have thought they had fornicated on the air.” Binder rallied support from the host network, NBC, then forced the show’s editor to erase the earlier takes of the song, so the offending moment would have to be aired. The special was broadcast in April 1968, stirring up huge media attention. With good reason, Binder insists, because it was “the first time a black and a white had touched on primetime television.” Screenwriter Patrick Sheane Duncan recollected for me the controversy the special generated: “Everyone went crazy over that . . . . Unbelievable! They wouldn’t show it in the South.”

That was then; this is now. Politicians love to press the flesh, and this year’s inauguration was no exception. On the steps of the Capitol, in Statuary Hall, and on the reviewing stand, our first African-American president and his wife were comfortably hugging men and women of all races. I’m not aware of any sponsors, or network execs, having heart attacks. It’s nice to think that TV can now truly broadcast in living color.


  1. She touched his arm? I'm so freakin' embarrassed by my species sometimes. Thank the heavens for people like Steve Binder.

    I am the least political person ever, so I paid little attention to this inauguration, or any other, to be honest. I do remember the Watergate hearings interrupting my afternoon cartoons when I was a kid - that annoyed me a lot.

  2. Now I see, Mr. Craig, how you've found time to see all those movies, while I was squandering my days and weeks reading news magazines and watching political conventions.

  3. As the scrubbing bubble says - I work hard so you don't have to!