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Obama: This could be the start of something big

January 20, 2009 |  3:13 pm

Obama_swear_kdsa7jnc_300_2 Change has come to America, and if you don't believe it, you weren't watching the last five days' worth of inauguration coverage. Oh, some things remain the same: Tom Hanks is still our favorite Everyman, soulfully quoting Lincoln during Sunday's "We Are One" inaugural concert on HBO, and Miley Cyrus can still make little girls scream, as she did Monday night on Disney's kid-friendly version.

Tuesday certainly had more than a few hallmarks of a standard American media fest -- CNN's irritating fast facts, the Spielberg sightings, the repeated use of the term "historic event." The pundits played their requisite roles -- MSNBC's Chris Matthews compared the outgoing Bush family to the Romanovs; Fox's Brit Hume took gratuitous digs at Bill Clinton.

But no amount of commentary could either diminish or embellish upon the incomparable size and energy level of the crowd smashed against each other along the National Mall in Washington. An inauguration is always an event, but this one was a spectacle.

Then, President Obama delivered his address and split the whole thing wide open, revealing a stern and brilliant center. The crowd may have gathered to celebrate an achievement, but Obama was there to announce a beginning, making a lyrical and impassioned call for hard work, difficult choices and personal and national responsibility.

It was an astonishing 20 minutes, not just politically but theatrically. Much was expected of this speech, with commentators and pundits eager for the "nothing to fear" or "ask not what your country can do for you" moment. And in the hour or so after, more than a few expressed disappointment that a "West Wing"-like sound bite did not immediately emerge. Of course, the Gettysburg Address got terrible day-after reviews, so it's hard to know. Certainly there were more than a few choice phrases. With phases such as that we "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" and the warning that "people will judge you on what you build, not what you destroy," the speech offered as much poetry as it did policy.

But more significant than any handy quotation was the overall tone, the utter lack of showmanship involved. Just as Obama entered the final round of debates with an obvious resolve to choose calm and clear over heated or snappy, so he uttered his first speech as president. Never before has a politician been handed such a rock-star moment, and never before has a politician steadfastly refused to accept it. Taking the podium with nary a smile, Obama got right to the point.

"We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," he said during the vibrating silence that hung over Washington's Mall. "Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the fainthearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame."

Not an easy message, nor one Americans are used to hearing. Change is something we mostly want other people to do; our new president has made it very clear that there are no "other" people anymore. That "we are one" refers to more than just a Springsteen- and Bono-headlined concert. That true exultation comes only after hard work, and we're all going to be called on to pitch in.

The flags waved, the people cheered and, for a while anyway, it was hard not to believe that something big was about to begin.

--Mary McNamara

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

(Photo courtesy Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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