It took me a few days to decide to write my own account of our trip down to the inauguration. Ultimately, I had to decide that it was worth recording for my own purposes, because it’s not like the world needs another account of such an intensely covered and widely attended event. So if you’re looking for a comprehensive coverage of President Obama’s inauguration, look elsewhere: By design, this account will be subjective, scattershot and incomplete.
Not by design, we got off to a late start Tuesday morning, and in retrospect, I should’ve realized that doomed our chances of getting into our reserved-standing spaces for the ceremony. But I was misled by how well our morning started off: We walked across Connecticut Avenue and hopped on a half-empty bus that whizzed towards the Capitol in good time.
Two other things seemed to portend that fortune was with me: Among the passengers next to us was a guy in an Eagles hat and coat, and my cell phone service worked. The Eagles fan, a blind guy named Brian Altieri, was in fact from Bethlehem, PA, and was there with his (wife? Sister? My reporting fails me) Leslie to witness the inauguration of the president they campaigned for. They didn’t have tickets – “We’re SOL,” Leslie said with a sigh – but were going anyway. The reason finding them immediately was fortunate for me was that it took one reporting task off my hands right off the bat: Any journalist on assignment elsewhere for a local-focused news operation is always preoccupied with finding someone from their home coverage area to interview. That’s why obvious markers like Eagles gear are such a godsend.
And the bars on my cell phone told me that I would in fact be able to call in to WHYY and give a report, something I wasn’t sure was going to work. I called Dave Heller, our Morning Edition host, from the bus, and gave him a brief update about what it was like to be traveling toward the inauguration, complete with snippets from what I learned from the Altieris, that Dave recorded and played as part of the 8:04 newscast. As we were walking after exiting the bus, I got a text message from a Philly friend telling me she’d heard the report, which put a smile on my face.
The bus stopped short of Dupont Circle, so Kate and I still had a hike in front of us. Our destination was many blocks away, near the Judiciary Square Metro Stop, where folks with plum-colored tickets were supposed to enter. By now, if you’ve heard of snafus regarding folks not getting in to see the inauguration, you may guess where this is going. People with these purple or plum tickets, people who worked for Obama’s campaign as Kate did, had the most problems. But we didn’t know that as we optimistically made our way across DC.
The streets were full. You might’ve seen some of that on TV. In addition to the thousands of people, and thousands of cops, National Guards and soldiers patrolling the streets, the entrepreneurs hawking Obama swag were legion. There were enough of them, and our walk long enough, that I found myself rating them. I wasn’t buying any hand-warmers that morning, but if I had, it wouldn’t have been from the guy weakly saying, “Hand warmers, five dollars.” It would have been from the guy barking, “Obama promised change, but he can’t change the weather today! Hand warmers, get your hand-warmers!”
When we eventually made our way to our intended entrance, we saw a line, about four or five deep. So we turned the corner, following the line. And that’s when we saw the tunnel. The line bent around the corner, and down into the 395 tunnel. We followed. And followed. And I started asking folks when they got on line. One said, “If you weren’t here at 1 in the morning, you’re too late!” Others, further on, said they were on line since 6 a.m.
As we reached the other end of the tunnel, (which is being called the “Purple Tunnel of Doom”) on the opposite side of the National Mall, we realized we had no chance of getting in to our assigned section. It was a very discouraging moment; this was, after all, the reason we endured the significant hassle of coming down to DC.
We debated, and ultimately decided to go try to watch the inauguration on TV somewhere. Walking a bit, I asked a guard in front of a building next to the Capitol if he knew of a nearby TV. And he was our best ally that morning: He told us that the building he was guarding was open to the public, and had some flat-screen TVs in the cafeteria. So after passing through a metal detector, Kate and I entered the Longworth House Office Building.
We found the cafeteria, and its approximately 5 TVs. We camped out beneath the furthest one, and started watching NBC’s coverage. Our room, overflow seating attached to the cafeteria, was nearly empty, with just a few other people around the one TV on the far side of the wall. We pulled a table up front, and parked ourselves there.
The room filled in around us by the time Obama took the oath. I mean, every inch of floorspace was filled, with people who abandoned hope of getting onto the mall after we did. They were from Arizona, Florida, New York, Virginia, DC, California. Many had interesting stories to tell.
My favorites were the two guys in wheelchairs. Their story is the whole reason I’m writing this, because this story deserves to be added to the history of what happened that day. I didn’t get their names, and wasn’t really wearing my reporter’s hat once I sat down. But here it is nonetheless.
A young, mid-20s white guy in a hoodie and a wheelchair told me that his “handicap bus” never showed up. What’s more, his front, little wheel broke. The reason he had made it so close to the action was another guy in the room with us, an older black guy in a motorized wheelchair, had towed him for miles into the center of the city, from their bus stop.
I can’t get over that story. To realize the magnitude of the feat, one has to consider how crowded were the streets that morning. There were some places that were so crowded that no matter anyone’s good intentions and courtesy, those wheelchair guys couldn’t have gotten through. The image of them rolling into town, in the freezing cold, to take part in history moves me still. In a way, watching the inauguration with them made the whole thing worth it for me. I wish I had gotten their names and a photo.
You can see the black guy in a red coat and grey hat just to the right of the white pillar in the photo above; the white guy in grey coat and white hoodie is cut off all the way in the foreground at left of the photo; he was right next to the screen.
After the event was over and before the parade started, Kate and I caught a late lunch at a Burmese restaurant in Chinatown. On each side of us were couples who had had plum-colored tickets, too. One couple was furious: They were trapped in the tunnel with thousands of other Obama campaign workers, chanting first “What’s Going On?! What’s Going On?!” and then “Let Us In! Let Us In!” She ended up listening to the inauguration over her cell phone, as she called a friend who put her cell phone up to a speaker on the Mall.
But the other couple had the opposite experience: They approached the entrance even later than us, but from the other side, and apparently didn’t wait long on a line, and got onto the Mall and watched the inauguration live (though the woman said she was too short to see anything).
Thoughts about what everyone saw:
Like many others, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Obama’s speech when I heard it. It seems inevitable, for the man had set such a ridiculously high bar with his speeches on Election Night, at the Democratic National Conventions of 2008 and 2004, in Philadelphia on race, and in accepting the nomination in Springfield, Illinois. But I’ve since re-read it, and it seems stronger than I remembered it. But a few words and phrases jumped out at me, then and now.
“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers.” “Non-believers.” That this president recognizes folks who don’t ascribe to any religion as part of those he’s charged with leading is extraordinarily meaningful to me, and this word may have been the most powerful single word of inclusion of the whole event.
“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” This is precisely what I have longed to hear from an American president, and I hope the Islamic moderates and “Arab street” to which it was really aimed pick up on the message. I think this idea presents the biggest challenge for regimes like those leading Iran and Syria.
The very next line was even more powerful to me: “To those who cling to power though corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” To follow such a stinging critique with such a clear, and eloquent, appeal for dialogue, is precisely where I believe our diplomatic tone should be.
I found Rev. Rick Warren’s invocation to be inoffensive and at moments soaring, but I loved Dr. Joseph Lowery’s benediction. This man is perhaps the last of the Civil Rights movement’s original leaders still standing (Rep. John Lewis was a student who rose to leadership; Lowery was a leader from the start). It was so incredibly fitting for him to be up there, prodding us all to remember the poor. And I loved his riff using the old bluesman Big Bill Broonzy’s song lyrics:
“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right.”
Despite the day’s frustrations, it was inspiring to be among such a diverse – in race, sure, but also in age, home-state and income level, probably – crowd, thronging the nation’s capital to share, somehow and in some way, in history.
And I probably shouldn’t finish this without some nod to the elements: It was bitter cold. Kate and I had dressed appropriately, layers and gloves and hats, etc. But thanks to our inability to make it outside, we ended up warm and toasty watching the inauguration inside. All in all, we may have had the best of both worlds: the opportunity to share the joy of the crowds in DC, but the comfort and comprehensiveness of watching the main events on TV. Lemonade from what seemed like frozen lemons.