Here I am, sitting in my home; one week after Obama took office. While watching President Obama announce a new special envoy for the Middle East, sign orders to close the Guantanamo Bay terrorist prison camp, and do a complete 180° on U.S. foreign policy, I blew my nose so many times that I went through an entire box of tissues in a single 24 hour period. Why the cold you ask? I was out in 20°F weather for 8 hours on Tuesday as I watched an African American take the Presidential oath of office for the first time in history.
Eight years ago, for Bush 43’s first Inauguration, I strolled down to the mall in my new parka and waited what felt like an hour for the oath to be administered. I don’t remember anything about his speech. I just remember going down to the mall, watching it happen, and going home…all without incident.
Four years later I took the metro, to the parade route for Bush’s second Inauguration. We passed through metal detectors and found ourselves on Freedom Plaza, just a few short blocks away from the White House. Unbeknown to us, this was the location where permits to protest were issued. When the President came by, his limo was cruising at least 30mph with secret service agents struggling to keep up. People were chanting and throwing things. I was amazed that nothing was separating me from the tear gas and fire hoses a mere 20 yards away. It felt like a war zone.
This time it was different. We had planned to wake up at 6:15am to begin the 2.5 mile trek to the mall. Instead we woke to Washington Post text messages at 5:15 telling us that metro stations were already above capacity. We got up early and began our trek.
I’m still not entirely sure as to why was this Inauguration was so different than previous inaugurations. It is easy to say it was because Obama is black and Bush’s ratings are so low but I’m not so sure that’s the entire story. Perhaps the theme of “change” and “hope” really resonated and it is the beginning of a silent coup on the status quo in Washington…maybe that’s what everyone really wants…
We began our trek waiting and watching as several busses passed us by because they were beyond capacity. Eventually we found a bus on a different route that managed to take us “as far as it could” before National Guardsmen turned it away. Seeing so many road closures with military personnel reminded me of 9/11. The evening of 9/11, once the initial fear was over and everyone had evacuated to the suburbs, very few people remained in the city. There were no cars, just military police and road closures. It was eerie. In a way, downtown Washington on Obamamania day was the same way. It felt like a war zone.
After walking a cold two blocks down a deserted Pennsylvania Avenue, we found a river of people pouring off mass transit, headed toward the mall. The variety of people was the most interesting part. There were school groups and youth trips, groups of friends, and many, many families. One group, from Alaska, was attached to each other by a string, just like a preschool class. Probably the most interesting scene were the many ‘Mt. Starbucks’ we passed on our way downtown.
On the mall, the only word to describe the crowd would be “immense”. There were people as far as the eye could see. As time passed the crowd became thicker and thicker, disallowing virtually any movement. It was great that there were so many port-a-johns, but actually reaching them was neigh impossible. By the time of the ceremony began (2 hours before Obama took the oath of office), a stroll of 20 yards might have actually taken 3 or 4 minutes; a short while late the chance of completing a 20 yard stroll in any direction was about as good as walking up to the stage and shaking the President’s hand.
The snack bar, if you could make it there and back, was selling hot chocolate…if you could even call it that. I called it gross. There was a shortage on hand and toe warmers. Everyone was so cold they forgot about how hungry they were. Cell phones were completely unreliable… and yet, everyone was joyful. When the announcer told everyone to be seated, the crowd laughed; it was simply too crowded to sit down.
On the jumbotrons we were quickly reminded of why we were there. As President Bush walked down the corridors of the Capitol, someone standing near me began chanting Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars. Soon after, as President-Elect Obama walked through the same corridors, everyone cheered.
I am white. Seeing Obama inaugurated did not affect me in the way many African Americans were affected. To be honest, the spirit and magnitude of the crowd were far more interesting to me than the pomp and circumstance of the stage and the speech. I could have comfortably watched from my home…with popcorn and good hot chocolate.
It was a meaningful day for me in the same way an Obama presidency is meaningful to me. I could go on and list a variety of the reasons why, but instead I think one word can capture my feelings toward this day and this new administration: Change. Perhaps that is a cliché thing to say, but the fact that Obama is not a Kennedy, Clinton, or Bush is refreshing. .Five years ago he was a mere state legislature whom only a handful of people outside of Illinois had ever heard of. Calling him a “nobody” wouldn’t be quite right either, perhaps the term “anybody” is a better fit. Sure he’s more charismatic, eloquent, and politically savvy than the rest of us, but he’s not a child of fortune. I think it is feeling that he is an ‘anybody,’ more than anything else, that marks the new feeling in Washington.
The Thomas Jefferson memorial stands directly across the tidal basin from The White House. Looking out any southern facing window means you’re eye to eye with an immense figure of U.S. history, whose solid resolve and immense stature immediately reminds any resident of the White House that this is a country built by and for the people. I’m not sure how, but I think it is smiling.