TELEVISION / Hail to the chief

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The Independent Culture
A FAMOUS, probably apocryphal tale about the inauguration of President Kennedy has it that one of the big American television networks hired a lip-reader to relay the casual chatter from the podium. When the man dutifully conveyed that Eisenhower had leaned sideways to his successor and warned him that he should 'keep a close eye on Vietnam' the producer decided not to pass on the information to viewers - assuming that only a handful of those watching would know where or what it was. If there were any historic utterances during the live coverage of President Clinton's inauguration (BBC 2) they weren't passed on either.

The occasion was an odd mix of formal Coronation and one of those variety shows designed to honour a long showbiz career. This may be appropriate to a country in which celebrity is more associated with entertainment than aristocracy, but even so it was odd to hear Wendell Ford reaching for the patter of a nightclub MC - 'Please welcome one o' the world's leadin' sopranas,' he proclaimed in a down-home drawl as he introduced the warm-up act.

As with the recipients of a celebrity tribute, the principle problem for the centre of attention is to come up with a variety of ways of looking sincerely moved, touched, amused and interested while saying nothing. Clinton did pretty well, casting his eyes down humbly during Billy Graham's invocation, an address which, given the speaker's politics, occasionally sounded distinctly disappointed with both the voters and the Deity, who had 'permitted (Clinton) to take leadership at this critical moment in our history.' The President smiled heroically as an Arkansas choir massacred a medley of uplifting songs and even managed a glisten in the eye as Marilyn Horne sang 'Make us let the colours of children everywhere shine in a world of love'. Even he, though, found himself in difficulties during Maya Angelou's long poem - a conversation between a rock, a river and a tree which threatened to last as long as the inaugural speech itself.

The star's solo wasn't bad though he threw away his best punchline in the middle of the speech ('There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America') and his delivery occasionally suggested mechanical problems with the autocue. But even if you tired of historical quotations and patriotic exhortations there was a fascination in watching American democracy at a moment of consecration. The sentimental will have noted the openness of the ceremony, not closed within a historic building for a congregation of the privileged but spilling out from the steps of the Capitol, for a crowd which could listen or walk on as it pleased. The cynical will have noted that as Clinton extended his metaphor about winter turning to spring, the air around him shimmered with heat in the telephoto lenses, evidence that the citizens on the podium weren't quite as exposed to the cold as the citizens down on the pavement.

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