We had no tickets to the Inauguration. We simply walked toward the National Mall. It was freezing; the sun at 7:30 a.m. did little to warm us. We started about a mile away, where the streets weren’t quite so crowded; I thought that, perhaps, all the handwringing over the sheer number of attendees was overdone. But, based on the way bleary-eyed revelers were stuffed in coffee shops, seeking a caffeinated thaw as they approached the city center, it was clear that Washington was going to be overwhelmed that day.
Indeed, the crowds multiplied the closer we came to the Mall. Pretty soon the sidewalks were full, and security personnel in camouflage fatigues appeared at street corners, answering questions and providing directions. A few blocks from the Mall, vendors selling food, hand-warmers and Inaugural souvenirs ranging from buttons to “official” certificates of attendance were barking out their deals.
At this point, the crowd became a river of people flowing in one direction. You resisted the tide at your own risk. But, it was a controlled onslaught. Officers handed out maps and firmly told people to keep moving. A policeman on a motorcycle, like a high-tech sheepdog, zipped up and down the curb while blaring his siren, discouraging anyone from stepping into the street. Concrete barriers prevented stampedes by filtering the crowd through small openings. After we were allowed into the street, which had been closed off to traffic, I was able to stand on a barrier and scan my surroundings: in back and in front of us, every inch of asphalt was covered with people with steaming breath and colorful knit caps. I had never been in a crowd so large.
That would be dwarfed by what I encountered in the Mall. We walked toward the Washington Monument and found a spot with a view of one of the many Jumbotrons placed throughout the grounds. To our left stretched a line of portable bathrooms whose length appeared to rival that of the Great Wall of China. Meanwhile, the crowd closed in behind us as a video montage of earlier speeches and performances played. The sun crept higher in the clear sky, but the temperature didn’t seem to rise. Standing there, feeling my toes and face grow numb, I wondered how all of these people, especially the children and elderly, could endure this two-hour wait. To the left, a young boy swaddled himself in a Spider-Man blanket; to my right, an elderly woman kicked her legs to keep the circulation going. Other people wrapped their scarves around their mouths and bounced and swayed as music blared through towers of speakers next to the video screens. As the minutes passed, conditions only grew more frigid – the slightest breeze could send an icy chill through several layers of clothing. A steady wind arrived, causing the flags ringing the Washington monument to quiver on their poles. I assumed some people would leave, even though doing so would require pushing one’s way through a dense shoulder-to-shoulder throng. But, everyone stayed.
When the Jumbotron showed the slow procession of dignitaries that kicked off the Inauguration ceremony, it was apparent that the elements hadn’t sapped the crowd’s enthusiasm. Predictably partisan, spectators booed members of the outgoing administration while cheering members and allies of the incoming one. Finding their sense of humor, everyone laughed when the announcer asked the crowd to rise or be seated; they couldn’t sit down even if they wanted to. Fewer people were shivering, as though warmed by the moment; they’d removed their scarves from their mouths so their voices could be heard. This collective feeling reached a level of pure joy when the First Family was announced; Sasha, Malia and Michelle Obama, shown walking out to the ceremony with wide smiles, drew passionate cheers.
The excitement escalated to frenzy when Obama himself approached the stage. The bungled Oath of Office, coupled with an audio delay on the video screen, hushed the crowd a bit as we tried to figure out exactly what was happening. But as soon as Chief Justice Roberts said, “Congratulations, Mr. President,” the less-than-perfect Oath was forgiven, and raw emotion rushed out in full force. Friends, family and even strangers gathered for group hugs, children waved mini American flags, and amateur photographers aimed their digital cameras in every direction, seeking to capture the fleeting moment forever.
Again, I expected some people to leave. Again, no one did. Instead, they listened to Obama’s entire Inaugural Address. As it started off in a somber tone, warning of great challenges ahead, the crowd listened quietly and respectfully, but then grew animated when Obama promised, in his dramatic, confident cadence, that the challenges “will be met.” The rest of the speech induced a similar emotional rhythm – the crowd grew quiet when Obama referred to America’s failures and shortcomings but shouted and clapped whenever he concluded that we, as Americans, can and must reverse these wrongs. We’d overcome much bigger challenges in the past, he said, and could therefore overcome them in the future. Perhaps Obama’s greatest gift as a politician is to make his followers believe that this “we” to which he refers is real, rather than rhetorical; I can’t speak for the rest of the crowd, but it was impossible for me to resist the unifying spirit of the address. The end of the speech prompted another round of cheering and flag-waving – and then, finally, people began to leave.
Getting out proved much harder than getting in. We found ourselves in a stagnant mass of people that for a long time appeared to be going nowhere. Surprisingly, spirits remained high. Spontaneous songs – including “Lean on Me” and “Celebration Time” – and chants – “O-Ba-Ma,” and “Yes, We Can” – started up as we inched our way toward the exit. Some celebrants climbed into trees, enjoying a bird’s eye view as they perched on the branches. Off in the distance, a daredevil of sorts drew cheers by skipping across the top of a stand of port-a-potties, no small feat considering their triangular roofs and flimsy plastic construction. At one point, a man with a booming voice loudly but politely exhorted the crowd to move to the left to make better progress, actually succeeding in getting us to shift in that direction. Admiring his leadership skills, another man joked, “Is that Obama?” The only signs of irritation occurred when a man from a religious organization preached through a megaphone about the Ten Commandments. The crowd wasn’t interested in hearing him speak to what was essentially a captive audience.
During the slow journey out, one particular, unexpected moment drove home the reality of the Inauguration. A hum of an aircraft sounded overhead, and we all looked up to see a military chopper cutting across the perfectly blue sky; it was carrying George W. Bush away from Washington. Some people clapped and sang, “Say hey hey, goodbye,” as the helicopter grew smaller and smaller, finally vanishing into the distance. For me, seeing Bush transported out of Washington, alone up there while hundreds of thousands of us packed the National Mall down on the ground, reinforced that the Inauguration wasn’t merely pomp and circumstance. For better or worse, power really did change hands, and we’d all served as witnesses.