The late evening of the Obama inauguration.

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Jan. 21 2009 1:59 PM

CNN Goes to the Ball

After the event, it was time for the pseudo-event.

See all of Slate's inauguration coverage.

(Continued from Page 2)

During readings, Hollywood A-listers (with a few politically minded celebrities of a lesser wattage) spoke of past American leaders and of core democratic principles that honored "the ongoing journey of America to be America," as Queen Latifah said therein. The musical numbers ranged in tone from heavy pomp—Tom Hanks intoned his reading over the booms and tinkles of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait"—to incongruous revelry. * During a performance of Bob Marley's "One Love" by Herbie Hancock, Sheryl Crow, and the well-meaning, ever-jabbering Will.i.am, the camera caught Sasha Obama regarding the show with bald skepticism. The group might have convinced the assembled throng of adults that this was the right place for something like a Rasta jam, but 7-year-olds are much tougher to deceive.

But some performers were born to transcend the awkwardness of moments like this and make the heart soar. John Mellencamp jangled out "Pink Houses" with a choir behind him as some effective heartland propaganda—radiant photo portraits of schoolteachers and firefighters—slid across the screen. During U2's two numbers, Bono—immutable Bono, with his wraparound shades and a messiah complex that is by now as endearing as Joe Biden's hamminess—played to the camera rather than the crowd. And there is something wrong with you if you were not moved by the sight of the formerly blacklisted Pete Seeger, heroically spry at age 89, standing next to Bruce Springsteen and leading a singalong of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Banjo in hand, Seeger sparkled like the sands of America's diamond deserts. Nothing twinkled more brightly than he that day, except maybe Shakira's tights.

Posted Monday, Jan. 19, 2009, at 12:01 PM ET

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The cable-news networks launched inauguration coverage at 10 a.m. on Saturday, setting the table for half a week of theater and ceremony and hoping to set the tone for half a year of programming. "This event helps build the next six months," MSNBC exec Phil Griffin told Variety last week.

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In which case, we should expect MSNBC's Hardball to evolve into a cineaste's salon where host Chris Matthews riffs, freestyle, about Hollywood classics. As the president-elect's train pulled into Union Station on Saturday evening, that glamour junkie ceaselessly invoked Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Something sweet gleamed in Matthews' starry eyes as he compared Obama's cool to Ray Milland's. But if Matthews was going to go all TCM, then he should have mentioned The Tall Target, Anthony Mann's 1951 noir about a detective guarding Lincoln on his pre-inaugural train ride to Washington. Given the networks' frequent chatter about Obama's allusions to Abe—and their slightly paranoiac reports on security—the omission glared like a Fox News anchor's highlights.

What was the Fox News team thinking beneath their dye jobs? The network was figuring out how to celebrate the inauguration while still feeding meat to its red-state base. When CNN and MSNBC broke from covering the train ride, those networks often featured analysts and historians talking about coming power plays and policy challenges and puppy acquisitions. When Fox broke away, it almost always inveighed against government spending. At one point, anchor Neil Cavuto did a virtuoso job of filling time with bad locomotive-related puns, recognizing that his audience wanted to "rail and rail" against the bailout bill. Fox joined the other two networks in placing cameras on Obama's train, pointing them out the windows and, via unreliable broadband, airing choppy, smeary footage of what was happening outside. This was, of course, ridiculous, though it did have the advantage of making Delaware look fractionally less dull than usual.

—Posted Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009, at 6:55 PM ET

Correction, Jan. 19, 2009: This article orginally misspelled the name of Aaron Copland. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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