Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hello and good-bye to all that

Can you see Obama? Yes, I was this far away, but it still felt worth it.

Well, I'm back from an exhausting, but generally exciting and exhilarating Inauguration Day. A day that started earlier than I expected - I awoke spontaneously this morning at 4 AM (coincidentally - perhaps - the time the Mall opened for visitors) and couldn't get back to sleep. My buddy Alton, with whom I'm staying, told me I was acting like a kid on Christmas morning, but I still prevailed on him to get a move on earlier than planned. By 7:30 AM we were down on the Mall, in 18-degree weather.

It was already crowded, but we managed to find a spot about halfway down its length before the crowd got so dense we began to feel claustrophobic. This left us in front of the Smithsonian's "castle" building, with a good view of a nearby jumbotron, and an unimpeded view of the Capitol (although the people on its stages were smaller than ants, see above). Then all we had to do was wait more than four hours in sub-freezing temperatures before, at last, our long national nightmare would come to an end.

The crowd was well-behaved and friendly, but I wonder if folks who watched the network coverage felt the actual vibe coming off the Mall during the ceremony. Bush and Cheney were loudly booed and hissed, as you'd expect, as were Joe Lieberman and Clarence Thomas. Big cheers, on the other hand, greeted Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, and the Clintons. John McCain got a frosty, but respectful, response. The crowd went nuts for the Obamas, of course, with particularly wild cheers for Michelle and the girls. The relief over Michelle's gorgeous but daring outfit was palpable, and noted audibly. Aretha sounded great. And the sun came out - and the temperature rose to near freezing. I could almost feel my toes. Best of all, I was still taller than anyone who had pushed their way in front of me; I could still see both the jumbotron and the tiny ants playing with the tiny Bible on the little white stage before the Capitol. Still, things were, by noon, fairly claustrophobic across the Mall, although standing cheek-by-jowl with over a million other human beings is, in its way, an experience worth having. You'll certainly never forget it.

The fluff around the swearing-in was odd, but funny, and of course Obama was unflappable as ever; a brief debate erupted in the crowd over who, exactly, had gone wrong first, but was quickly silenced. And all at once Obama was President, and suddenly, it seemed to me that everything had become slightly unreal - was this actually happening? Was I really there? But then The Speech began, in powerful sunshine, and was wonderful in that it hit all the right points, and was oh-so-pointed regarding the record of you-know-who, who was just a few feet away. Still, it wasn't all that eloquent, and certainly not even in the ballpark of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, which everyone had been referring to constantly over the past few days. It was sober and thoughtful, but perhaps not inspiring. Oh, well! Even though my partner has begun referring to Obama as "the Messiah," I guess he's not yet the equal of Lincoln, at least not when it comes to rhetoric!

And then it was all over - and the huge downside of the event came into sharp focus: the city and the inaugural committee had really devised no exit strategy for the nearly two million visitors camping before the Capitol. All the streets around the parade route to the White House were blocked off - as was my way of entry, via the Washington Monument. It took me well over an hour just to get off the Mall - and this was only accomplished by enduring often-frightening onslaughts of confused, oncoming crowds, and hopping the odd blockade or two. Still, the delay allowed me to catch a glimpse of the helicopter that whisked W. off to Texas again. I doubt he noticed, but a group was serenading his departure from near the Monument, warbling that old kiss-off tune, "Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, hey he-ey, GOOD-BYE!" I may have never heard a sweeter sound. But what made it all the more wonderful was the sense that after some eight years of mistakes and malfeasance, we did good this time.

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