Why are there American citizens who stubbornly maintain that Neil Armstrong's moon landing was faked? Why is cynicism becoming a crippling national malady? Look no further for the answer than the inaugural ceremonies of Barack Obama, where a U.S. Senator and a quartet of great musicians couldn't bring themselves to avoid artifice and deception on the day America displays its democracy to the world.
There were reasons, of course. There are always reasons for lying. The weather was too cold for the instruments, and the virtuosos Ma, Perlman, Montero and McGill feared that their rendition of a John Williams-arranged pastiche called "Air and Simple Gifts" would be out of tune. So they had a recording ready, and it was the recording of the four (conveniently available just when they needed it, although no recording of the new piece was commercially available. Hmmmm...) that was heard by the television audience around the country and the world, as well as the millions of assembled to see the ceremony in person.
Senator Diane Feinstein, handling the introductions for the day, laid the groundwork for the fakery by introducing the performance as if it would be live. It all went off without a hitch. Three days later, everyone came clean: what was "played" was a recording. Just like Ashlee Simpson, who was pilloried for lip-synching on "Saturday Night Live." Just like Milli Vanilli, the infamous band that was run off the record charts forever for presenting other singers' voices as their own.
But hey, that was entertainment. This is just the inauguration of the President of the United States. You know...the one who is going to change the culture of secrecy, deceit and lies in government.
I know what people are going to say: big deal. Who cares? It's just a piece of music, and a bunch of long-hairs were afraid of becoming the classical equivalents of Robert Goulet, botching the National Anthem while being broadcast to the world. But it wasn't just another musical performance, was it? The performance was part of the swearing-in ceremony of President Barack Obama, and that meant that it could not, should not, must not be phony, faked, or a lie. I don't buy the story being peddled by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, whose spokesperson claimed, in revealing the scam, that the musicians were "very insistent on playing live until it became clear that it would be too cold." Baloney. This wasn't April, after all. It was late January, and the weather in D.C. had been hovering at or below freezing for a week. Everyone with a TV, a car or a thermometer knew that a quartet including string instruments wouldn't work, not to mention that it is hard to play the violin, cello and piano in mittens. The musicians had the recording prepared, cued up, and ready.
This was the plan all along: Fool everybody. The important thing, after all, was to make sure everything went perfectly. Next time, maybe we should try an audio-animatronic Chief Justice who won't screw up the oath of office. Perhaps the president should lip-synch pre-recorded responses, just to be on the safe side. Or have a double stand in for the President during the ceremony...you know, for security purposes. Maybe we should have the inauguration produced in a studio against a green screen, so nobody has to be cold at all.
Just like the moon landing.
No. This wasn't just a quartet of musicians. Their performance was part of a sacred American tradition that evokes the best in our history and values. This was a ceremony that was supposed to symbolize, as it always should symbolize, hope, honor, freedom, public service, and American idealism. It was wrong, terribly wrong, to begin the next four years with one more casual blurring of reality because lying is easier than accepting consequences.
It would have been wonderful, refreshing, and, yes, symbolic, if Diane Feinstein had said, "We had hoped to have a live performance by Yo-Yo Ma, Izhak Perlman, Gabriella Montero and Anthony McGill today, but unfortunately, the cold will not allow their instruments to play in tune. So here is a recording of a special selection John Williams composed for the occasion, as these wonderful musicians played it in a studio."
Ah, the truth.
The sweetest sound of all.