Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Through the generosity of a friend, Laura and I were present to witness the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. It was quite an experience. I don’t have any particular insight, but I was there and wanted to offer something of the experience.
We left on Sunday, January 18th and landed in Baltimore a little over an hour later. That night we had dinner at a Georgetown hotel restaurant. It was a mob scene. There was a party on the lower level of the building. Elegantly dressed folk ascended and descended the stairs to the event. We joined our friends at their table after passing David Gregory, Cher and a host of other celebrity types. It felt as if the whole world had descended on our nation’s capitol.
The next day, Monday, we kicked around Georgetown with our friends. There was a tangible exuberance that permeated the city. Walking around, people seemed to make an effort to make eye contact. People seemed to desire to relate to one another and have contact. Having spent a fair amount of time in cities on the east coast, this was a bit shocking. National Guard troops stood on corners as far as 2.5 miles from the Capitol, but they wore smiles and shared greetings. Despite the obvious presence of security precautions, I didn’t feel constrained.
That night, we gathered for dinner with our friends at their apartment, where we would watch the Inauguration and parade the following day. The view, you will note from the photographs, offers the best of both worlds. Were able to have a view of the capitol and be in a prime spot for the parade. The Capitol building was illuminated that night in an extra bright fashion. I think there must have been preparations underway until around 11pm, when the lights were dimmed to their usual level. I stood on the balcony for a long time, thinking about the momentous, unprecedented occasion we were anticipating. It still seemed quite unreal.
The morning of January 20th, 2009, we left Georgetown about 9:30 am on foot. The walk took about 45 minutes. We walked with people from all over the country and from all stations in life. Everyone seemed to appreciate the gravity of the moment. Venders hawked their wares. T-shirts and buttons of all imaginable shapes, sizes and subjects were everywhere. My favorite t-shirt portrayed Obama as a basketball player slam dunking a ball. Another showed Obama as a DJ mixing at two turntables. The one we bought our son shows Obama dressed in a suit, but tearing it open at the center to reveal a big O on the chest, instead of an S for Superman.
The absurdity of all this communicates something about our expectations for this President. To be sure, we are all aware of the challenges we face as a country. We know we need something big. I suppose Superman is pretty reassuring. God help President Obama.
People were singing and chanting as they walked. There was some confusion about check points and entrances. We bumped into one friend who gave up and watched it on television in her hotel!
We arrived at our destination, were cleared by security and took our place on our perch. We watched television coverage from CNN to follow the events. Loudspeakers were on the street, so we heard much of the day live, like the Oath of Office and the Inaugural Address. Actually, CNN was broadcasting from a building, just two buildings closer to the capitol than we were. We arrived just in time to see the first motorcade taking the President and the President-elect to the Capitol. For the next 45 minutes, we watched people on the mall, security work the street, and snipers on the rooftops.
We watched everyone take their seats for the ceremony. We listened to Rick Warren’s prayer, which seemed relatively mundane, but was more of a homily than a prayer. Poems and music were interesting. Aretha sounded fine on the outdoor speakers. That was some hat! But I have to admit, there was a sense of anticipation that screamed to get to the meat of the day. Finally, we watched and listened to the Oath. The people on the mall went crazy. They were waving so many flags, so fast that for those moments the entire character of the crowd visibly changed. The same was true when the President made significant points in his Address. For me the highlights were mention of how far we have come since his father would have been denied service in Washington, and when he talked about what it would require of us to meet the challenges we face.
We watched President Bush depart. His helicopter flew right over us. We waited through the lunch for the parade to commence. We discussed the likelihood of the President exiting his car and walking part of the parade route. Some of us felt that security concerns might stand in the way. Others we adamant that he would walk. As we awaited his motorcade to reach us, which took forever because the parade moved so slowly, we all hoped for a glimpse of the President. Half a block before our perch, the motorcade stopped. For a minute, nothing happened, then the Secret Service agents approached the car in the middle of the motorcade. The doors opened and the President and First Lady were walking on Pennsylvania Avenue. Pandemonium ensued. The President waved and people were shouting well wishes; I was shouting, and taking photographs. The two blocks the Obamas walked in front of us seemed to last much longer that two blocks.
Seeing the President engage in the time honored ritual of greeting the people of this nation made it real somehow. I don’t know why, but those moments oozed connection, maybe even reconciliation. It felt like we were changed. It felt like we were a new people as Americans. For me, it wasn’t a feeling of completion, but a feeling of being newly prepared to do something, something noble, something just, something better than previously possible.
We witnessed the rest of the day. We watched the Bidens perambulate as well. We mingled with a fascinating crowd of Washingtonians, celebrities and regular folk, and it was surreal fun. But, I want to hang on to that sense of possibility in spite of real, difficult obstacles. My hope is for something better than previously possible. We are not there yet, but I somehow feel we are closer than a week ago.