Blogging the Inauguration: A raspberry from the bleachers

For some who came to see Obama's big moment, the Inauguration became a giant SNAFU.
For some who came to see Obama's big moment, the Inauguration became a giant SNAFU.

It was predictable that an event the size of the Inauguration would have a few problems. Corralling a million or so people onto the National Mall, complete with individual security checks, is a huge undertaking. The Obama campaign machine was famous for its organizational skills but apparently that was then. To the vast television audience, the event may have moved liked clockwork. But, sad to say, for many who decided to bear witness in person on the Mall, the Inauguration was a giant SNAFU.

Transportation wasn't the issue. Hordes of us were deposited in downtown Washington with precision by bus and Metro. Some of us walked.

By 7 a.m., downtown streets were filled with people walking toward two or three — it was never clear how many — access points. Tiny funnels through which all had to pass to gain access to the Mall. We had read and reread instructions on our tickets. The Washington Post had maps and more tips. Somehow, it all turned vague for us, and thousands like us, when we hit the streets. Plus, it was cold. The temperature rose slowly from the predawn 20 degrees but the north wind picked up, making it seem colder as the day wore on. It never got above freezing. >/p>

D.C. police were everywhere. So were Inaugural Committee volunteers in red ski hats. All I talked to were pleasant, but answers to direction questions were often contradictory. The volunteers were hopeless.

Temporary signs with big arrows, bread and butter for efficient crowd control, were non-existent. By luck and with one good tip from a police officer, we were steered into a highway tunnel, closed to cars. Shoulder to shoulder, we pushed ahead. We emerged 20 minutes later, on the opposite side of the Mall. Moving with the flow, we arrived after another half hour at a security screening tent. TSA agents (who was minding the airports?) gave everyone a physical pat down. We were there.

'ꀜThere'ꀝ was a standing-room spot, crammed in the middle of the crowd, a quarter-mile from the Capitol. A Jumbotron video screen, our only hope of watching the swearing-in, was half-hidden by the overhanging branch of a large elm. Audio speakers were far away and the words of Obama and others echoed off the walls of nearby buildings. The sound seemed to come from three different places at three slightly different times. From where we stood, our eloquent new President was basically unintelligible.

I should quit grousing and be grateful to have actually gotten a place on the Mall. It appears the Inaugural Committee invited more people than there was space available in some areas. The Senate Sergeant at Arms says up to 5,000 persons with official tickets may have been turned away. The Washington Post'ꀙs Inauguration blog has dozens of blistering comments in the early evening hours from people with tickets to exclusive spectator areas who couldn'ꀙt get past police lines and were frozen out of the entire event. Here are two samples:

'ꀜI am a congressional staffer and one of thousands of Blue ticket holders for the Inauguration ceremony that did not make it in. I waited for hours and the Blue Gate was mass chaos. Everyone there was in the right place'ꀦbut the Capitol Police would not let anyone in the whole morning, the line didn't move very much. Everyone there just wanted to be a part of history and celebrate this historic moment, but the Capitol Police cheated us out of that opportunity and robbed thousands of it, even though we all had tickets. Today is one of the saddest and most disappointing days of my life.'ꀝ

'ꀜIt was only the general goodwill of the crowd that kept things form getting ugly, which could have easily happened given the huge level of disappointment after the realization that the tickets and hours of waiting were useless. All in all, it was a stunning failure for the inaugural committee and US Capitol Police — absolutely disgraceful.'ꀝ

Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund and a Democratic Party stalwart for decades, was among those who failed to gain Mall access, the Post reported.

To be sure, a million or so of us did make it to the scene and were able to whoop and holler when our candidate became President 44. But my wife and I walked roughly eight miles for the privilege and were on our feet nine straight hours in sub-freezing temps. I'ꀙll tell everyone I was there and I have photos to prove it. But next time, I'ꀙm watching TV.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eugene Carlson

Eugene Carlson

Eugene Carlson was a print journalist for 25 years, primarily with Dow Jones & Co.