Obama's Inauguration: Good Speech, Great Imagery

The bar was so high that it was a given that some people would be disappointed in President Obama's inaugural address.

The bar was so high that it was a given that some people would be disappointed in President Obama's inaugural address (opens in new tab). It was far stronger than most, filled with important themes and a clear call to action in a new era of responsibility, fittingly sober and dignified for the times. But it lacked any memorable clarion call that will live on, and some commentators were quick to note that.

But in many ways, the importance of the inauguration was in the pictures of this day, which truly were worth a thousand words.

The entire weekend has been an incredible mix of hope and responsibility -- people of all color and creed and economic stations coming together to celebrate and mark history, knowing all along that there is a huge amount of hard work yet to come. And it has all been told in pictures.

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The early photos set the scene -- the symbolic train ride from Philadelphia to Washington, the festive concert on the Mall (opens in new tab) attended by half a million in freezing weather, the somber laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington and Obama painting a wall on the day of volunteer work dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.

Today's photos were more majestic: The first African-American president taking the oath of office and then the the expressions of joy and fulfillment on the faces of the millions who braved the cold and all sorts of logistical obstacles to be part of this moment of history. Those pictures said more than anything Obama could say in his address.

This is not to denigrate the speech. It was an extremely eloquent call to duty, reflecting a sense of history, an awareness of the problems that face the U.S. and a determination to bring the nation together to solve them. The most compelling line was perhaps the promise that America would get back up, dust itself off and reinvent the kind of nation foreseen by the founders. But the concluding references to George Washington and the darkest, most uncertain days of the war for independence made clear that Obama sees the formidable task ahead as nothing short of a second American Revolution.

Obama looked different from the moment he took the oath of office, almost as though you could physically see the burdens of the office descend on his shoulders, as they undoubtedly have. And there were other images that told different pieces of the story: President Bush waving his final goodbye before stepping on the Air Force jet that would take him back to Texas, the ambulance whisking Sen. Edward Kennedy to the hospital (opens in new tab) and the reportedly animated conversation (opens in new tab) between Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican who prevented her immediate confirmation as secretary of state in a sign that partisanship is still alive and well in Washington.

But it will be the photographs of the throngs of ordinary Americans waving and cheering in the cold that will tell the most important story of the day. Perhaps, they will also provide clues to how successful the country will be in the difficult days that lie ahead.

Mark Willen
Senior Political Editor, The Kiplinger Letter