The blowback about her inauguration performance is not really about lip-synching.
(The Root) -- For the last few days, America has been obsessed with a political scandal that seems likely to eclipse Watergate as one of the most covered and dissected controversies of our time: Beyoncégate.
News reports that pop diva Beyoncé Knowles lip-synched her way through the national anthem during President Obama's inauguration have been treated with the same shock and awe as the discovery that a war hero faked his medals or a celebrated author plagiarized his most famous work -- and really, it's not that serious. The truth is, her critics know this; but the lip-synching is not really what they're mad about. Some remain mad that she was there performing at all.
There is a lot to like about Beyoncé. She is beautiful, seems sweet and apparently puts on an amazing live show. (I've never attended one of her concerts, but I've heard they're pretty spectacular.) But in terms of actual talent and global image, she's more on par with Madonna, than, say, opera greats Jessye Norman and Denyce Graves, or Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin -- all of whom preceded her as inauguration performers.
To have Beyoncé -- someone whose image as a star is at odds with the image the first couple has striven to construct -- perform at one of the most significant events of their public lives struck many as both politically and professionally tone-deaf. The hypersexualized persona on display in her not particularly tasteful GQ magazine photos, which were embarrassingly released the week before the inaugural, and her Pepsi endorsement deal flies directly in the face of the first lady's Let's Move campaign.
Unlike Stevie Wonder, Jennifer Hudson or Audra McDonald, Beyoncé is not really known for her voice but, rather, for her overall performances as an entertainer. That's why most people can't really be that surprised by the lip-synching. (But then again, as more than one person has reminded me, Wonder, Hudson and McDonald didn't raise $4 million for the president's re-election campaign. Maybe if they had, they would have been singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at his inauguration, and they would have done so live.)
To be clear, Beyoncé, like Madonna before her, has the right to be as sexual as she wants. I don't believe that stripping down in GQ makes her any less of a feminist than I consider myself to be. She also has a right to make as much money as Michael Jackson did in pursuing an endorsement deal with a high-calorie product that is helping to spread diabetes throughout our community.
But we all make our choices. And when you make the choice to strip down in an intensely sexual manner for a men's publication, whether your name is Beyoncé or Madonna, no one is ever going to look at you again and think "classy inauguration songbird." (Even if you are wearing a floor-length, Grammy-esque evening gown for the occasion, while everyone else is sporting an event-appropriate outfit.) Just as no one is ever going to look at your endorsement deal with Pepsi and think, "There's someone who cares about healthy eating in our community -- just like the first lady."
There were articles and petitions calling for Beyoncé to be removed from the inaugural lineup. (Interestingly, the White House petition disappeared offline days before the inauguration.)
I wasn't someone who signed the petition. I knew I wouldn't have to, because I was pretty sure that at some point, everyone involved in her selection would look back on the decision as a misstep.
I just didn't realize it could be so soon.
Her candid responses on the Benghazi, Libya, incident seemed to solidify the judgment that she is presidential material.
(The Root) -- The tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, has already claimed the lives of four Americans, as well as the career of one American diplomat. The first African-American female ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, saw her hopes to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and her reputation, go up in flames after sustained conservative criticism of her response to the Benghazi assault. There were those who believed that she would not be the final casualty.
As secretary of state, Clinton has claimed ultimate responsibility for the fallout from the incident. In doing so, she raised questions about the long-term impact of the tragedy on the Department of State as well as on her legacy, which includes a possible presidential run. The idea that Benghazi could ultimately prove fatal to her presidential hopes gained such traction that when Clinton recently battled health woes, thus delaying her testimony on the matter, conservatives insinuated a cover-up.
Former Florida Republican Rep. Allen West accused her of having "Benghazi flu," while the Fox News Channel's Charles Krauthammer accused her of having "acute Benghazi allergy." They were, of course, proved wrong -- embarrassingly so -- when Clinton's doctors confirmed that she had been suffering from a blood clot near her brain. It is likely because of these debunked accusations that so many elected officials, including conservative ones, spent so much time expressing relief for her recovery during her testimony on Benghazi before the House and Senate on Wednesday.
But besides conservatives' best attempts to make up for the insensitive and insulting allegations of some of their comrades, it appears that some of them had another goal: to stop the Clinton presidential train before it pulls out of the station. Despite their best efforts, it didn't work.
The secretary of state's most heated exchanges of the day were with certain Republicans -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Paul and Johnson are Tea Party darlings who clearly were on a mission to get the better of Clinton.
Paul, rumored to be a possible 2016 presidential opponent of Clinton's, should she run, fired off perhaps the most memorable line of the day when he told her that had he been president, he would "have relieved you of your post" for her handling of the affair. The line is memorable for its confrontational tone as well as its employment of fantasy. No one, including most Republicans, remotely believes in the possibility of a Paul presidency.
In her testy exchange with Sen. Johnson, Clinton showed more emotion than Americans are used to seeing from her -- even those Americans who recall the days when she endured the scandal of her husband's affair and impeachment. Under Johnson's aggressive questioning of the timeline of information gathering in the days immediately following the Benghazi tragedy, the secretary of state displayed anger and exasperation, saying, "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator."
Though Johnson later referred to the remarks as "theatrics," at the time of the exchange he seemed caught off guard by her emotion.
And then there was Clinton's exchange with her alleged friend and former colleague, Sen. John McCain, who said he did not believe aspects of her testimony. He went on to speak for several minutes, almost as though he were testifying. Clinton calmly told him that they simply disagreed.
McCain's demeanor at the hearing will likely only further solidify his reputation as one of the sorest losers in American presidential history. (Shortly after McCain's cantankerous questioning of the secretary, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois pointedly referenced how the Senate was previously indisputably misled regarding weapons of mass destruction, thus resulting in a costly and casualty-laden war -- the insinuation being that McCain and others didn't press that matter the way they've pressed Benghazi.)
Clinton's ability to handle the Benghazi hearings and, more important, to handle the men attempting to manhandle her in their questioning confirmed that she is more than ready to handle yet another rough-and-tumble presidential campaign, as well as the job of president.
But perhaps an even more important development to come out of her testimony is that for those critics who dared presume that her health woes raised questions about her toughness, she showed just how tough she really is.
From Michelle Obama's style to a controversial poem to a presidential smooch, here's the best and worst of the historic day.
(The Root) -- With the final inaugural ball finally wrapped up and all of the out-of-town attendees headed back home today, The Root decided to take a look back at the highs and lows of President Obama's second inauguration.
High: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday
Hollywood could not have scripted it better. On the day the nation celebrated the life and legacy of its most revered African-American civil rights activist, the ceremonial swearing-in of the country's first black president for his second term took place. The legacy of King hung over all of the inaugural festivities -- including when Stevie Wonder performed his signature "Happy Birthday" at an inaugural ball.
High: Michelle Obama's Wardrobe
If anyone has any doubts about how much America loved the first lady's blue jacquard Thom Browne coat and dress, consider this: Browne's website was so overloaded after he was identified as the designer, people had difficulty getting on it for hours. She also returned to Jason Wu, who designed her gown four years ago, only unlike last time's demure white, this time she sported fire-engine red. Last inaugural, Michelle Obama looked like a first lady, but this inaugural she looked like the First Lady of Fierce.
Low: Beyoncé's Wardrobe
She received raves for her performance of the national anthem (though it was later alleged that she lip-synched), but the pop diva's choice of dress for the occasion seemed more fitting for the Grammys than for the inauguration. The floor-length, embroidered, sheer-sleeved gown that she donned made many of us miss Aretha Franklin's unforgettable hat.
High: Obama Takes It All In -- One Last Time
While exiting the stage after his second public inauguration ceremony, President Obama lingered to catch one last look, saying, "I want to take a look one more time. I'm not going to see this again." The moment and image became one of the most poignant of the day.
Low: Chuck Schumer Sparks a Meme
As chair of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer was destined to play a major role in Monday's inaugural activities. Unfortunately for him, he may not be remembered for that role in the way he'd hoped. Schumer is so notorious for his love of the cameras that, as reported by a number of outlets, there is a common Washington joke: "The most dangerous place in Washington is between New York's senior senator and a camera." His camera loving (some might call hogging) was on display in full force during the inaugural festivities, sparking endless ribbing in cyberspace and culminating in this priceless image, sure to start a meme.
High: The First Couple's Kiss
One thing that even political foes of the president have conceded is that the first family represents America very well. From the attractive and clearly in-love first couple to the adorable first daughters, they are without question a lovely, all-American family. When the president and first lady went in for a spontaneous Inaugural Day smooch, thanks to their awesome kids, hilarity and a lot of "awwwws" ensued. Watch it here.
High: President Obama's Speech
Filled with platitudes and light on specifics, President Obama's inaugural address from four years ago is widely considered one of his least memorable, and certainly not one of his best. His second inaugural address, however, will likely be remembered as just as important to his legacy as his star-making speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
The president made history by being the first commander in chief to champion gays and lesbians in his inaugural speech. He also spoke passionately about a number of issues, from immigration to climate change. If anyone assumed that this president was prepared to accept lame-duck status and a more passive approach in his second term, this speech erased any such speculation.
After his second swearing-in, the president urged unity, tolerance and action.
(The Root) -- After a first term that saw fierce partisanship, a struggling economy and widespread disagreement on the principles that define us as a nation, President Barack Obama kicked off his second term with an address calling for unity while celebrating the nation's growing diversity and insisting that we must respect and look out for all Americans.
"We have always understood that when times change, so must we," said the president as he addressed the nation. "That fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."
Speaking in a year that sees the convergence of two major anniversaries in the road to equality -- the Emancipation Proclamation's 150th and the March on Washington's 50th -- and on a day that coincides with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, President Obama frequently invoked names and imagery from freedom struggles, as well as the battles fought by immigrants, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Certainly, his political base was not forgotten in this speech.
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth," he intoned.
The coalition that helped re-elect the president was also well represented elsewhere in the inaugural proceedings. Slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers' widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams, gave the invocation; the Rev. Luis Leon of of St. John's Church in Washington, D.C., gave a benediction that asked God to help "see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white; male or female; first-generation or immigrant American or daughter of the American Revolution; gay or straight; rich or poor"; and even GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee quoted Roots author Alex Haley.
But beyond that coalition are the 49 percent of voters who did not choose President Obama for a second term. To them, and to the lawmakers across the aisle with whom he must spend the coming weeks hammering out a budget deal, he said, "Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time."
Will he be able to lead Congress in solving our nation's economic problems and healing some of the political rifts that seem to have widened over the past four years? Time will tell if this sunny, brisk day in January is the beginning of real progress.
As he starts a second term, we look at how he's addressed eco-hazards in poor and minority areas.
(The Root) -- Until the inauguration on Jan. 21, The Root will be taking a daily look at the president's record on a number of policy issues, including his first-term accomplishments and what many Americans hope to see him accomplish in a second term. Today: environmental justice. See previous postings in this series here.
Background: Environmental justice -- the notion that Americans who live in poor and minority communities should not be overburdened by pollution and other environmental hazards -- has been an official priority of the federal government since 1994. That's when President Bill Clinton signed an executive order directing federal agencies to develop strategies to address the disproportionately high, adverse human-health or environmental effects of their programs on vulnerable populations.
President Obama emphasized his own commitment to the issue as early as his 2008 campaign, promising that, if elected, he would strengthen the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, expand the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program and empower low-income and minority communities to respond to threats to their environmental health.
First-term accomplishments: Obama made good on his commitment to strengthen the EPA when he appointed Lisa Garcia as associate assistant administrator for environmental justice and arranged for her to report directly to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson instead of to a lower-level official.
Jackson tasked Garcia with integrating environmental policy into the agency's rulemaking and actions. Under Jackson's leadership, the EPA took the lead on the government's environmental-justice goals, with Garcia heading up the Interagency Working Group -- including representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce -- that's dedicated to the issue.
That group had lapsed under President George W. Bush but began meeting again in September 2010, Garcia told The Root. Reinvigorated, it began its work in earnest by holding 18 listening sessions around the country "to hear directly from the communities of color and poor communities whose environments posed the worst risks," she said.
From that feedback, the EPA created Plan EJ 2014, which Garcia called "EPA's road map to integrating environmental justice." Its goals, she says, are to "protect communities overburdened by pollution, to empower them to take action to improve the health and their environments and to build healthy, sustainable communities." In February 2011, each agency issued an environmental-justice plan for improving the quality of life for people in minority and tribal areas.
When it came to the promise to expand the Environmental Small Justice Grants Program -- whose funds go to help community-based programs in "overburdened and vulnerable communities" address environmental risks -- Politifact couldn't locate the year-by-year data on grant money awarded, but it did find that overall environmental-justice funding at the EPA in 2012 exceeded the amount Obama had inherited by about 25 percent, which it called "a healthy increase over four years."
The EPA's commitment to provide low-income communities with the legal ability to challenge policies was less successful. Although communities have the power to petition the federal agencies under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating on the basis of race, a 2011 report provided by the EPA from an outside consulting firm found that the agency had "not adequately adjudicated" these complaints, pointing to backlogs of cases, with some waiting as eight years. It's been accused of "poor investigative quality and a lack of responsiveness."
Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, a national environmental-justice organization, said that when it comes to this area, he's been gravely disappointed. "The agency has been just horrible when it comes to implementing and enforcing Title IV -- that is, ensuring recipients of federal money don't discriminate when it comes to environmental exposures," he told The Root.
An example, he says, is the agency's settlement in the widely reported Angelita v. California Department of Pesticide Regulation case, in which his organization represented the complainants. The EPA found that Latino children's exposure to pesticide pollution was disproportionate to what white children faced. But when it came to the settlement, "the agency lacked the political will to provide a meaningful remedy," he says, lamenting that it provided for little more than continued monitoring.
Newell wasn't alone. Sierra Club President Allison Chin called the settlement "a major blow to the cause of environmental justice."
Politifact concluded in November that overall, the administration had shown mixed progress and characterized its efforts to address environmental justice as "a compromise."
Second-term expectations: The agencies in the Interagency Working Group are due to publish progress reports on their environmental-justice strategies in 2013. The plan, Garcia said, is to "continue with our commitments" and "to be accountable and continue the work."
"We still think that if you focus on some of the vulnerable populations or areas that are overburdened, you can really make plosive movement and [have a] healthy impact, reduce asthma rates and really improve quality of life in communities," she told The Root.
Outside the agency, Newell says that advocates aren't as hopeful about seeing concrete actions and sanctions for environmental discrimination in the next term. His fear is that the second term will be like the first, characterized by, as he puts it, "a lot of talk and little action."
"If the Obama administration is going to make environmental justice a reality, it has to change the environmental injustice that is occurring on the ground ... We can't continue to talk about 'initiatives.' That's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Newell said. "And giving communities a voice isn't [enough], either, if the process is discriminatory. What good is being at the table if you're going to be on the menu?"