The Phoenix Network:
About  |  Advertise
News Features  |  Talking Politics  |  This Just In

Inauguration daze

If a presidential speech is made outside of prime-time TV-viewing hours, does it make a sound?
By STEVEN STARK  |  January 19, 2009


For the next week, the press and pundits will talk all about the historical importance of Barack Obama's inaugural address. And, based on his past rhetorical performances, it should be a great one.

But, alas for him and for them, it doesn't really matter. Inaugural addresses are an anachronism. Yes, they once meant a lot. And many of our most-treasured political axioms derive from inaugural addresses. Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation at his first inaugural that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. Abraham Lincoln, at his second, spoke of the coming post–Civil War healing that he hoped would display malice toward none and charity for all.

But those speeches were in the days before television, when Americans heard from their presidents much less frequently and regular presidential appearances hadn't become a kind of TV show in their own right.

In truth, it's been almost a half-century since anyone said anything memorable in an inaugural speech — John F. Kennedy with his "Ask not what your country can do for you" oration in 1961, right before TV became a dominant force in our national life. Perhaps recognizing the obsolete nature of the whole exercise since, even our greatest post-JFK rhetorical president, Ronald Reagan, never bothered to display his best stuff on January 20 — reserving it for other, more memorable occasions. Showing a true understanding of the media culture, the one memorable thing Reagan did do at inaugural time was to flip the coin from the Oval Office the night before his swearing-in (in 1985) to open that year's Super Bowl. How many more people watched the coin flip rather than the inaugural speech? Oh, only about 80 million or so.

The major problem with an inauguration speech, of course, is that it isn't delivered in prime time, so few actually hear it. If Obama really wanted his words to reach the masses — and give the nation a change they could believe in, if only because they'd actually experience it — he'd move his address to the evening (much like the World Series and so many other events have done), and then do his serious partying at the inaugural balls afterward.

But that isn't the only problem. The setting for the speech — on the steps of the US Capitol — is majestic, but it's also very cold and the elements are uncontrollable. There's a reason most TV shows are shot in California or in studios, and most Super Bowls are held in warm-weather locales or indoors.

That's why the State of the Union ranks as the more important occasion — with the ratings to prove it. It's held at 9 pm EST — prime time in most of the country. And its indoor, equally majestic setting is every bit as compelling as anything inauguration day has to offer.

The other problem for Obama next week is that no one single speech can be that important anymore. That's because Americans now see their president all the time, thanks to cable TV and Internet news, which broadcast around the clock.

1  |  2  |   next >
Related: Dawg days, Rallying cries, Mr. Populist?, More more >
  Topics: Stark Ravings , Barack Obama, Media, Ronald Reagan,  More more >
| More
Add Comment
HTML Prohibited

 Friends' Activity   Popular   Most Viewed 
[ 10/13 ]   Latin Taste of Boston  @ Villa Victoria Center for the Arts
[ 10/13 ]   Weber Dance  @ Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center
[ 10/13 ]   Women of Will: The Overview  @ Central Square Theater
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   DEMOCRATS AGAINST OBAMA  |  November 03, 2010
    Now that the midterm wipeout has concluded, analysts are already sizing up the GOP challengers to a weakened Barack Obama. Not only that: some Democratic party elders are considering the once-unthinkable scenario of a debilitating challenge to Barack Obama from inside his party.
  •   THE INDEPENDENT HERD  |  October 06, 2010
    The big news in this election cycle is the rise of the Tea Party. Fair enough. But passing under the radar is an accompanying development that could have even more far-reaching consequences — the rise of an emboldened third force in our politics.
  •   THE AMERICAN IDOL PARTY  |  September 23, 2010
    Sarah Palin and Christine O'Donnell might not turn out to be good candidates, but they make great television.
  •   HAS OBAMA PEAKED? YES, HE HAS  |  November 12, 2009
    To listen to some pundits, Barack Obama's public image began taking a serious beating when the off-year election returns came in a week ago. Or maybe it was the undeserved Nobel Prize, his approach to the war in Afghanistan, or when he revved up his pursuit of national health-care reform.

 See all articles by: STEVEN STARK

RSS Feed of for the most popular articles
 Most Viewed   Most Emailed