Caught in the crush of citizens seeking entrance to the Presidential Inauguration at the Purple and Blue gates just below the Capitol, my wife and I scrambled to find a place to hear the swearing-in ceremony in real time, even on television. Inaugural tickets in hand, but thwarted by the serious lapse of crowd management, we squeezed into a Thai Restaurant situated three blocks away from the authentic event. Only then did I realize that the best place to mark the transfer of power from Bush to Obama was with a diverse collection of people, thrown together by chance and united by the need to witness history.
At least it was warm inside, for the D.C. wind off the mall had chapped our faces for four hours until we resembled those little Dutch dolls with the painted cheeks. We had munched through our supply of gorp and miniature Snickers bars, and our bodies craved a respite from the frigid air that turned the reflecting ponds into geometric slivers of ice. The crowd of 50 people crammed into the eatery strained to watch a modest television set perched above the bar. When the big moment arrived, the patrons stopped eating and sipping their tea. The waitresses and dishwashers paused to take in the moment as Obama placed his hand on the Bible.
The sense of anticipation on everyone'ês face was palpable. It struck me that a gathering of immigrants and locals and travelers from every corner of the country was an ideal place to see the President, this 44th President, take the oath of office and deliver his inaugural address. The room broke into applause after Justice Roberts administered the grammatically flawed oath. Frequently during Obama'ês speech, we rose and clapped in unison as if we were standing there before him on the West Portico. The linkage between entrepreneurs from Seattle, students from Florida, and Thai emigrants became intense in this moment where we were no longer reluctant to share our emotions in public. I found my wife'ês gaze and saw that we were both beaming with pride and teary-eyed.
The citizens of the District of Columbia turned out for this President in a way that they never have for past quadrennial celebrations. Although Reagan and Clinton drew crowds to the Mall, this crowd came from the African-American neighborhoods surrounding the Capitol. They turned Inauguration Day into a local ft, where people waved flags and hawked five-dollar Obama! T-shirts from street corners with a sense of ebullience and pride.
Listening to Monique'ês local radio talk show, we vicariously participated in the topic of the day: 'êHad Dr. King'ês dream been realized?'ê Most of the callers acknowledged that although the state of the nation was far from perfect, that black Americans had come a long, long way to witness Barack, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha Obama ride from Capitol Hill to their new home in the White House. As one African American teacher from D.C. noted, 'êMy students have started to draw pictures of themselves in class as the President or Vice President. And they never would have done that before this.'ê
The security in evidence around the Mall was ridiculous, but in light of the circumstances and concern for the first family'ês safety, who can say when 'êenough is enough?'ê Near Third street, we passed an entire block devoted to FBI bomb squad and Humvee style vehicles that looked like they had been transported from the set of an Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator movie. The silver and black vehicles gleamed so brightly that I could only marvel at the shiny objects paid for by our tax dollars.
Approaching downtown on the D6 bus, our bus driver, an African American lady with close-cropped hair, found her customary route blocked by multiple security checkpoints and military vehicles slanting across intersections. Like passengers in a safari tour bus, we maneuvered around each obstacle until we could get no closer to the Mall. A party atmosphere prevailed on the bus, with everyone strategizing their routes to the Capitol and comparing ticket colors. We helped each other take group photos and shared sections of The Washington Post as we neared our destination. Eventually, our driver allowed us to make personal stops and wished us well as each set of passengers departed.
My wife and I spent six hours that evening at the Western States Ball at the Convention Center. In light of our failure to see the swearing-in that morning, my wife was determined to see the Obamas up close and stationed herself at the front of the stage and stood guard from 8 pm to midnight. Entertainment began at 9:30 pm, with Marc Antony and his 14-piece Salsa band. They played a full set and then Antony invited his wife up to sing a duet. Jennifer Lopez wowed the crowd with her sparkling white gown and general glitter. She glowed. They sang a spicy tango. With the entire set rendered in Spanish, I couldn'êt track the lyrics, but the general theme seemed to be 'êamore'ê or its opposite.
In the intervening four hours, we got to know our neighbors — a charming couple from Los Angeles, a woman from Northern California who brought her four teenagers to experience the evening, a gay couple from somewhere out west. As if we had coordinated by advance memo, the men all wore rather conservative tuxedos, while the women displayed much more personality in satin gowns and flowing dresses. This being a Western States event, movie stars and directors like Sharon Stone and Ron Howard graced the scene.
The odd thing about the Obamas'ê appearance is to imagine the scene from their perspective. They arrive at their eight or ninth ball to dance their eight or ninth dance to the classic, 'êAt Last,'ê and a crowd of well heeled, screaming, tuxedo-clad people who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder for hours greet the new First Lady and President by hoisting cell phones and Flip video cameras aloft for the entire duration of their visit.
For me, this underscores the triumph of technology. It is not so important to bear witness with one'ês eyes and applaud the new President, as it is to record his entrance and exit on a personal video device so that one can instantly upload mobile photos to Facebook and panoply of photo sharing web sites. We can'êt really believe we are there anymore, unless we walk away with a trophy case of digital images. Consequently, the object of our adoration does not hear people applauding with two hands, but rather sees his own image cast back at him through a thousand digital devices.
After the thrill of the dance, where the President sweetly whispered into his wife'ês ear as they danced cheek-to-cheek, the Marine Corps band and multi-service honor guard departed. People rushed to the coatroom for their wraps. And I was left with the surprising feeling that the highlight of the event, aside from the bragging rights of having been there on this day, had been the opportunity to meet and chat with the people we randomly came into contact with in the course of the day and truly getting to know some of them and their life stories as we waited for hours to see the new President. We exchanged cards and email addresses and invited each other to visit if we ever came to the other'ês town.
We had bonded quite quickly and incubated the same optimism about what this day we shared might mean when we look back years from now at January 20, 2009. A bone-chilling day in the District of Columbia. A day of promise for our nation.