This will be a VERY long entry. Many people have emailed and asked for a full report of the Inauguration so this covers it. The Inauguration was one of those “you had to be there” kind of experiences. It’s difficult to put into words or show in pictures just what the day was like and what we felt throughout it. In fact, the whole day rendered me speechless which is about like saying Mother Theresa never helped a person in her life.
Regardless of your viewpoint of President Obama, you can’t deny that this was a historic moment for our country. When the older African American guy next to you says, tearfully yet joyfully, that he never thought this day would come, and your friend Lisa’s African American first graders told her they didn’t think “someone that looked like them was allowed to be president,” the occasion called for more than polite applause and the typical pomp and circumstance that accompanies a typical inauguration.
Dave captured his thoughts on the day here. And there are some photos to share here. (Be sure to click on “Show Info” at the top right side of the screen to get the captions for each photo. If you need to slow down the slideshow, click on the small thumbnails of each photo at the bottom of the screen).
I decided I’d supply my take on witnessing history diary style to give you the full flavor of the day from start to finish.
2:30 a.m. – One hour until the alarm goes off but I’m already awake in the Club Quarters Hotel in Philadelphia wondering, among other things, will I be cold, will we make it onto the Mall, will I be able to handle the crowd even though I’m not claustrophobic, will I suddently become claustrophobic, will I be able to see anything since I’m not what you’d call blessed with height, will I faint like I’ve been known to do in such places as church, a baseball field, and the Mayan ruins when I haven’t had enough to eat or drink, and will there be – please God let there be – at least one available porta-potty wherever we end up?
4 a.m. – I’m contemplating adding two more layers up top than I’d originally planned on. A quick glance at CNN shows some people already gathering on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and you can see their breath. I decide the more layers the better, no matter how ridiculous I look. It’s not like we’re going to a ball or anything. Our version of Inauguration Day is not about looking fashionable. So on the bottom we have: two pairs of heavy-duty hiking socks, new thermally-insulated Columbia hiking boots in a stylish tan with lavender trim (okay, of course the shoes have to be cool and I had to have a new pair for the event), one pair of my favorite and most reliable thermal running pants, and the biggest pair of jeans I own to accommodate the layers. Oh, and underwear. Let’s not forget that all-important extra layer.
On the top, I’m wearing: a turtleneck, a thermal running shirt with mitts that cover my hands if I want (this is freaking awesome and I can entertain everyone with a little puppet show with the mittens which I do later on the train), a Rubber City Clothing hoodie, a grey wool sweater, a red polartech fleece, my winter coat, two other pairs of mittens, and a bright green-striped hat with a festive bongy-ball on top. My pockets are stuffed with: a second hat, a camera, a cellphone, one PowerBar, and one pack of peanut butter crackers. I can barely get my coat on given the layers but I stuff myself in as best I can and Dave does the same on his side of the room. We’re out the door at 4:30 a.m. and I pray my bladder behaves because I am also not what you’d call blessed with a steel bladder. I’m a frequent pee-er. Like clockwork, I am. But I skipped my morning glass of water and I only had a half cup of coffee so I hope I’ll at least make it to the train station close to two hours away.
4:45 a.m. – Kevin and Doug christen the rental car with an Obama-Biden bumper sticker (see left bumper). We snap a few quick photos in the dark parking garage and pile our layered selves into the car. Kevin takes the helm as driver and maintains an 80-mile -an-hour pace toward our first destination, Silver Spring Station, the outermost DC Metro train stop. Dave closes his eyes for a cat nap. Doug studies the maps of the Metro and WMATA stations. Kevin drives on. I look out the window praying I won’t get carsick and won’t need to make a pitstop to pee. C’mon bladder, don’t fail me now!
5:30 a.m. – Shit, shit, shit. Dave, the most technologically savvy of us, had the foresight to sign up for Metro updates. First of a few great strategic moves of the day. Maybe he should be in Obama’s Cabinet. Dave’s phone dings with a text telling us the first three Metro stops are closed. The parking lots are full. It’s only 5:30 a.m. and we’re in Baltimore, MD! Kevin says out loud what we’re all thinking — Fuck! (Sorry mom, there are four people of Irish heritage in the car). Doug studies the map and we collectively decide the College Park station in Maryland sounds like the next best option. It’s still open and stops are closing at an increasing frequency. Cars stream into the College Park lot and we’re all crossing our fingers the lot won’t close before we’re let in.
6 a.m. – We’re in the lot, we’re fully layered, we’ve inserted our toe warmers and hand warmers, we’re contemplating peeing next to the car in the parking garage but there are too many people heading toward the Metro so we move with the crowd. There are people who bought Metro tickets in advance. They get right through the gates. We didn’t do that so we’re standing in line moving an inch forward every five minutes when the Metro workers say, “No more fares, go through the gates, DO NOT RUN, DO NOT RUN”. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea – let my people go and go we did. We move through with the masses and then Kevin turns back and says, “wait, maybe we should buy our passes for the way back.” Second great strategic move of the day. Kevin should be in the Department of Transportation. What’s that saying about luck being where opportunity meets preparation? We’re all over it.
6:15 a.m. – We’re on the train and it’s relatively empty compared to what we’ll experience later in the day. We remain standing, keeping seats open for older travelers. Besides, we can barely sit given all of our layers. We are now in the excited-anticipation phases, having no clue what it will be like as we approach DC.
7:15 a.m. The train begins to fill and four of 10 stops toward our final destination, L’Enfant Station, we’re told that our station is closed due to overcrowding. Doug studies the map again and the conductor gives our choices — Galerie or Waterfront. Galerie is closer to the Mall but we have to find a way around Pennsylvania Avenue. Waterfront is farther away but on the Mall side. We decide Galerie even though the conductor mumbles, “I’d take Waterfront” just as we’re pulling up to Galerie. We’re too excited and don’t know the layout of DC well enough to strategize so we exit into the crammed station. Everyone is smiling, waiting patiently. There’s no concert-type pushing and shoving despite the fact that we are shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of passengers. I’m keeping tabs on Dave’s hat and Kevin’s hat because they’re the tallest of our quartet.
8:30 a.m. – We are in the streets of DC with thousands of others, moving like cattle toward … well, we’re not really sure. People are cheering randomly, high-fiving each other, searching for the best route to the Mall. Doug reiterates that we need to find a way around Pennsylvania Avenue which is blocked off for the parade later in the day. We backtrack some after hitting a wall of people trying to get down a closed-off side street. A cop — without a bullhorn — is shouting at people to quiet down so he can offer directions. He’s already lost his voice and we move on, unable to decipher what he’s saying. Doug sees an ambulance from Purcellville, VA. Classic photo opportunity. Then, I spy a lonely porta-potty on a side street with a line about five people deep. Third great strategic move of the day. I should be elected to the Department of Homeland Restrooms. We wait in line as Doug studies the map a little more. A canine unit from one of the 53 police forces on duty in DC unloads their dogs. Woof. It’s the first of many, many times during the event that we were grateful for the incredible work of the police and military for keeping the crowds controlled. We see an officer giving directions at the barricaded street near us. After laboring through shedding layers in the porta-potty, we head toward the officer for advice. Turns out he’s not a DC cop and doesn’t know where to send us except away from the barricade.
8:45 a.m. – We’re in the middle of the street and we’re no closer to the Mall. I’m getting increasingly convinced that making it to the Mall is a long shot. Kevin and Doug suggest re-boarding the train — are yogu kidding me? — for the Waterfront station which is south of Pennsylvania Avenue but will put us on the Mall side of things. The station is several blocks away from the Mall but walking is no biggee. It’s a way to stay warm. I whisper to Dave that I’m not so sure about this plan but we don’t have many options and we’re a team. It’s not like we can break away and call each other later to meet up again. Doug likens our trek to The Amazing Race. Decisions are made and agreed upon and you have to take the risks and suffer or enjoy the consequences. Turns out, the decision was the fourth great strategic move of the day. We board the crowded train at the Galerie stop and it begins moving. We’re expecting to hear that the La’Enfant station is still closed when the conductor, miraculously, says, “La’Enfant just re-opened.” A tall ex-military man who knows DC and is in our train car says, “if that door opens, get out. Whatever you do, move.” Yes, sir! Somehow, the luck of the Irish continues to be with us.
9 a.m. – We’re at 12th Street and our ex-military savior on the train said that 15th Street or 17th Street would be our best entry onto the Mall. The crowd swells by the minute and the cops are keeping us to one side of the closed-off streets to maintain control. Again, AMAZING work by the men in blue and army green. Everyone is jubilant and obeying the rules. No one is pushing. No one is running. We are all moving slowly, checking our watches because it’s nearing Inauguration time and our final destination is still blocks away and thousands of people are in front of us. We’re close enough that we can hear a band playing, then a choir singing “America, The Beautiful.” If I had my pick, this would be our national anthem instead of “Star Spangled Banner.” I get teary-eyed as do many others but mostly it’s because we’re so near the mall, we can see the tip of the Washington Monument, and we think we’re going to make it onto the Mall with all of these other happy people. It’s so overwhelming seeing so many people from so many walks of life feeling proud to be Americans. In my lifetime, there’s never been a moment like this. Not for the bicentennial when my family traveled to DC, not after 9/11 when people rallied together. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a moment like this.
9:45 a.m. – We are in the tightest crowd I’ve ever been in. I’m chest-to-back with the person in front of me and I can feel Dave’s chest on my own back. People climb trees to get a view of the Mall. People line the steps of various buildings. At one point, a golf cart tries to get through the crowd and people hang on to the back of it to follow it through the human blanket, which causes the only rough and semi-scary shoving of the day. I hear a woman say, “I traveled for days to see Obama and I am getting onto that Mall.” We are all determined to make it but know that the only way “out” is “through” so the crowd remains patient and happy. A parade of tour buses holds things up at 15th Street. We see them pass one by one and it’s like being stuck at the train tracks watching for the caboose that signals the end. Finally the buses stop and the crowd pushes forward. Kevin jags to the left and he’s quickly absorbed into the crowd. Doug shouts for him to stay put. There are at least a dozen people between him and us and it becomes very clear, very quickly how very easily it would be to lose each other in the masses. We catch up with Kevin and make our way up a small hill to the base of the Washington Monument. Flags snap in the wind, people mill about taking photos, the porta-potty lines are minimal so we make another pit stop.
10:15 a.m. – The Lincoln Memorial is to the west behind us, the Capitol is way, way to the east ahead of us, we spy the White House to the north and all around us are people claiming a patch of grass. We locate a Jumbotron but I can barely see. It’s hell being short in a crowd. We walk to the other side of Washington Monument, closer to the White House side and find another Jumbotron. This seems to be as good as spot as any and I can see a little better. There’s a man with a radio right behind us so we’re hearing live reports. There’s a couple from Brooklyn to our right, a group from Vermont in front of us, and two younger men – probably students given their UCLA hats – to our left. Behind us is our cheering squad, a crew of young men in red hats chanting, “Whose house? Obama’s house!”
10:30 – 11:00 a.m. – We crane our necks to see the past presidents and other dignitaries parade onto the Capitol steps. Bush Sr. looks sickly, Carter is wearing his ear-to-ear grin, Clinton draws a cheer, and then Aretha Franklin does her thing. I turn back to Dave and say, “is that a hat or something?” I don’t have the greatest view of the Jumbotron but I can see something that resembles a massive, studded bow or maybe it’s some sort of giant helmet. On anyone else, the hat would’ve been a fashion disaster but it’s Aretha and she tends to toward the big and bold.
As Bush comes into view, the booing starts and and several sing, “na-na-na-na, hey, hey, goodbye.” The two younger men next to us clap for Bush and tell the crowd around us that he was a president and deserves our respect regardless of our opinions of him. The man from Brooklyn disagrees openly but in a cheerful way and continues with the boo-ing. Biden, on the other hand, draws huge applause and fist-pumping when he appears and the cheers only grow louder when Obama raises his hand to wave to the masses. The man from Brooklyn yells, “That One! That’s the one!” several times, referencing McCain’s gaffe during the debates when he derisively referred to Obama as “that one over there.”
How you get a million-plus people to settle into complete silence is beyond me but that’s what happens. The moment Obama steps to the microphone, the crowd goes mute. We are all face-forward toward the Jumbotrons, bobbing and weaving around hatted and hooded heads trying to gain a glimpse of our new president. Many are in tears, overwhelmed to be standing among so many who are waving flags, holding hands, and looking forward to a new era for the country.
Here are some of my favorite moments in the speech:
- “Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.”
- “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met. On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.
- “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
- “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.”
Speechwriters, media pundits, and others have called Obama’s speech “grim”, “straightforward”, “practical.” Many gave him a “B” and wondered why he didn’t hit it out of the ballpark with quotable quotes and quick soundbites. Some even called it a flop. His sentences were long, the tone was serious and tough. Where was the inspirational, elegant rhetoric Obama gave us along the campaign trail?
This kind of analysis misses the mark, in my humble writerly opinion. The country is in a dire spot and Obama’s task was to send a message all Americans could relate to without saddling his speech with all the bad news. This was not the time for warm and fuzzy and meaningless soundbites that make Obama out to be our savior. His speech, if you read the transcript, makes it clear that he is calling on ALL Americans — Democrats, Republicans, whomever — to set aside differences, look for new solutions, and be willing to think differently to get our country back on track. The goal, most speechwriters agree, was not to get people excited about his presidency but to inspire people to roll up their sleeves and work together to overcome the challenges faced by the nation. Bottom line: we could spend decades in the blame-game and name-calling and who screwed up the country but none of that is going to move the economy forward. So, let’s all get along and share on this playground we call America.
There are other experts who say the speech was forgettable by design, to help lower expectations of the new president and staff because they know darn well that the work ahead of them will be slow and that Americans are notoriously impatient.
Some of Obama’s speech felt familiar but not because I’m some sort of presidential speech buff. When we returned from the event, I did learn that his speech echoed the inaugural addresses of FDR, Reagan and Washington.
“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” Obama said.
Ken Askew, who worked for Bush Sr., calls this line in the speech “an overt but gracious hearkening to FDR and Reagan, establishing a pragmatic link—and demarcation—among the three Presidents [FDR, Carter and Reagan] and their eras.”
Nearly every speechwriter agrees Obama’s reference to President Washington at the end of the address was among the speech’s finest moments. Obama said:
“At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: ‘Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words.”
Some time after noon – We begin our trek back to the Waterfront station in the depth of winter. We’re tired, our backs are hurting from standing in the cold for six hours, but we’re so overwhelmed and grateful that we witnessed history that none of that matters. One look at the packed Waterfront station tells us we won’t be getting a train any time soon so we decide to walk to the next station another mile or more away. After walking at least three to four miles total, we board an empty train that is at the beginning of the line. As we journey ahead to each stop, more and more people board, including 39 students and several teachers from a middle school in Atlanta. The kids were in great spirits and the teachers and parents were exhausted but, again, no one complained about the sardine-style train ride back all the way back to the College Park station in Maryland.
Some five hours after the inauguration, we get back to the hotel, take much-appreciated showers, and head out to Pareto’s for an all-American dinner of pizza and beer.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, praise song for walking forward in that light.
Elizabeth Alexander (Inauguration Poem, Praise Song for the Day)