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.

The little hitch in the oath of office looked something like a beauty mark on the news shows' recaps and wrap-ups. This was the one element of the whole pageant that wasn't strictly symbolic, and with the chief justice and the president gently bungling it, there was a welcome speck of imperfect humanity at the core of highlight reels that might have otherwise felt unreal or pompous or postcard-perfect. Didn't one of the meanings of Obama's inauguration have to do with facing America's flaws?

There of course had been a great televised quest for meaning. Standouts among the talking-head historians included righteous Douglas Brinkley, measured Michael Beschloss, spunky Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Michael Eric Dyson, who's positioning himself as TV's go-to black intellectual for the Obama era, a Cornel West with better flow and fewer flights of fancy. BBC World News dispatched a journalist to capture the tearful joy of a black community in Alabama, and he reported back with that faint tone of condescension that can overcome Brits talking about American race relations. CNN, as ever, toys with its electronic playthings with a Christmas-morning fervor; Tom Foreman caressed the "Magic Wall" more pointlessly than ever, first sliding the logo of the National Park Service across a map of the Mall, later tracing the parade route in minute detail. And then after four days of giving us indelible images and useful historical insights—along with the usual trivia, clichés, and platitudes—the news networks were running on empty. Perhaps the turning point came while they were waiting for the Obamas to enter the reviewing stand: On Fox News, analyst Larry Sabato declined an invitation to discuss who might escort the first daughters when they needed to go tinkle.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Thus, having wrung all the meaning out of the event, TV was left with a kind of rubbery pseudo-event to bat around for another six or eight hours. CNN, committed to the big picture, tracked the locations of the inaugural balls in a 3-D rendering. On ABC's anticlimactic presentation of the Neighborhood Ball, the Obamas first danced to Beyoncé's rendition of "At Last" and then to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" as mangled by an all-star supergroup. MTV had the Youth Inaugural Ball, where, in the most arresting shot of the night, every attendee lifted a camera to snap the new president, and, annoyingly, the crowd chanted his name at length, a bit of idolatry best put in storage until the 2012 campaign. On CBS, Katie Couric brought us the political choreography of the Commander in Chief Ball from somewhere behind her eyeliner. While debriefing Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan, NBC's Brian Williams confessed to being disturbed at the keenness of his interest in the rag trade. He was alone in voicing such compunctions.

Pitiably star-struck, the Washington press corps had spent half a week chattering about the pleasures of rubbing shoulders with Bruce Springsteen and Ben Affleck out on the town. By 11 p.m. Tuesday, they were so strung out on celebrity that it was a coup to snag screen time with a third-tier Baldwin brother outside the Creative Coalition Ball. Soon, NBC was reporting from the BET party, and Fox News reporters were interviewing MTV News reporters, and Larry King was threatening to allow that tuneless hustler Will.i.am back on air, at which point it was time to go to bed in hopes of a brighter tomorrow.

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—Posted Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2009, at 2:01 PM ET

ESPN ran ABC's feed of the inaugural ceremony, following it with a memorable live report from its own Jeremy Schaap. It is possible that Schaap understood the mood on the Mall better than every other journalist on the scene. It is also possible that he either had been carried into madness by the rigors of the moment or was engaged in a subtle self-parody. "At the end of the day," Schaap said (with that cliché lending credence to the prank theory), "I think a lot of people here, as excited as they were to see him inaugurated and take the oath of office, were so cold that they just wanted the inaugural address to end." He said it was unclear how many athletes were on the scene ("There are a few million people out here. It's hard to spot everyone"), and this also seemed conceivable as a dry joke. But how to read Schaap's flight to the comfort of statistics? "He didn't challenge William Henry Harrison's record in 1841. That was an inaugural address of over 8,000 words."

The home-shopping network QVC didn't cover the inauguration itself, but one of its personalities was stationed around the corner from the parade route, where he chatted with a smooth-jazz maestro and tried to move some units of Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement, a two-CD set that can be yours for $18.57 plus shipping and handling. Then, at the 4 o'clock hour, QVC aired The First Lady's Jewelry Collection, the lowlights of which included a "brand-new multi-cross charm bracelet inspired by Abigail Adams" and a "gorgeous simulated emerald ring inspired by Dolly Madison." Confronting the horrors of "The Mary Todd Lincoln Collection" inspired a longing for "The Betty Ford Liquor Cabinet."

—Posted Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009, at 7:33 PM ET

When MSNBC announced that it would beam its inauguration coverage into Starbucks outlets in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, my counterpart at Time gaped in wonder, "Seriously: Did David Brooks think up that promotion?" At the outlet closest to my TV set, that seemed to be a possibility. Brooklyn Bobos did their Bobo thing—graphic-design work, drinking chai tea after yoga class, blocking the aisles with their infernal double-wide baby-strollers. The audio flooded the store, but the screen was mounted so that the guys behind the counter had the best view. "Ooh, there's Hillary and Bill," one said around 10:30 a.m., wiping down a cup-sleeve stand as various dignitaries entered the Capitol. "My homeboy, Bill."

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, Chris Matthews toiled steadily to provide MSNBC's critics with sufficient ammunition for the new administration's first 100 days. Before Matthews had seen Obama's speech, he'd already ranked it with the inaugural orations of JFK and FDR. The Los Angeles Times caught him explaining why he was receiving so many smiles from the crowd on the Mall: "Let's talk straight here: This is the network that has opened its heart to change. ... These people watch this network." His excitement did not go unnoticed by his colleagues, with Keith Olbermann stiff-arming that statement: "He's Chris Matthews, and he approved this message." Later, Al Roker implied that Matthews sensed the infamous thrill up his leg because the new president looks good without his shirt on. His pride seemingly wounded by a weatherman, Matthews sat there trying not to look like he was stewing.