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Smelling the roses

Jan 23, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Obama's most-memorable moment at the inauguration wasn't his speech

The thing that might stick in the public memory the longest from President Barack Obama's second inauguration doesn't come from his speech. It's what he did afterward.

That's not to say it wasn't a good inaugural address. For one thing, it was far shorter than most, just 18 minutes when some presidents have gone on for an hour or more.

And it had some good lines in it.

"We are made for this moment" has a chance to be remembered.

But probably not.

Quick, recite a phrase from a presidential inauguration speech -- any presidential inauguration speech.

Chances are the only one the average American could recall offhand would be John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

That was 52 years ago.

There have been 14 inaugural addresses since then, and nary a one has produced a quotable quote, so to speak.

Gerald Ford probably comes the closest. Upon taking the presidency suddenly upon the resignation of scandal-plagued Richard Nixon, Ford addressed the nation with these words: "Our long national nightmare is over."

That remark is relatively well-established in the public memory, but it could be argued that Ford really didn't give an inaugural address.

Certainly it was nothing like the ones we've come to expect. It was on television only, with no public audience. It wasn't on Inauguration Day, it wasn't at the Capitol, and it wasn't referred to as an inaugural address at the time he spoke in August 1974.

Either way, that's just one sentence, and it was spoken nearly 40 years ago.

On "The West Wing," the prize-winning television drama from the late 1990s to mid-2000s about a presidential administration, the final episode showed the transfer of power from the focal character of the show, President Josiah Bartlet, as played by Martin Sheen, to the new president, Matthew Santos, as played by Jimmy Smits.

As the two are riding to the inauguration in their limousine, Bartlet asks Santos about his inaugural address. Santos says it's not bad, but "there's no 'ask not what your country can do for you' in it," or something to that effect.

Bartlet smiles and says , "Yeah, JFK kind of ruined it for the rest of us, didn't he?"

Time eventually will reveal whether anything Obama said Monday will be preserved in the amber of American memory.

But something else will.

The thing that endures is the president's deliberate pause during his departure to look out at the inauguration scene for the last time.

When the band struck up its tune and it was time for him to leave the great podium, the president lingered a bit longer than most, gazing out over the throng on the National Mall. Then, after climbing the stairs to the rotunda, about to head for his car, he stopped again.

A distant microphone picked up his words faintly.

"I want to take a look, one more time," he said. "I'm not going to see this again."

And so he did, for a nice long look, eyes moving left and right, taking it all in.

This probably will be history's lasting moment of the second Obama inaugural -- and, we'd bet, the start of a tradition for every president at the second inauguration.

In it is a lesson for all of us, whether we voted for Obama or not. Amid the urgency and distractions of life, pause now and again to recognize and appreciate where you are, what is happening, your place in it, and its place in your memory.

"Stop and smell the roses," goes the old, old saying. If the president can do it, so can we, at least once every eight years.

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