The big day!
We woke up around 5:45 in the morning and started getting ready. Our friend Bethany from college, who lives in Maryland, came and met us at the hotel. When making plans for the Inauguration, we had thought it might be necessary for us to walk from our hotel in Crystal City (Arlington, Virginia) across a Potomac bridge and onto the Mall. The walk would have been 2-3 miles – very manageable for us and the kids. On our way out of the hotel around 7:00, we checked on the Metro, and to our surprise found that not only could we get into the station, but we managed to get on the first Yellow Line train heading to L’Enfant Plaza just south of the Mall. So we hopped aboard.
L’Enfant Plaza was pretty crowded, and it took us 30 minutes just to exit the station:
The great thing about our time in the station, and in fact the whole day, was that the whole crowd was in a great mood. This was the happiest mob of people I’ve ever seen in my life. No drunken young men, no angry pushers, no protesters. Just pure bliss and some determination.
At length we made it to the street:
L’Enfant is at 7th St NW near Independence, so we walked west on Independence until we could get onto the Mall. Our opportunity turned out to be just west of the Smithsonian Castle. We ended up on the north side of the Mall almost directly in front of the Natural History museum. We were far from alone there, even at 8:00 in the morning:
This will give you a better sense for what we could actually see. We were within sight of the Capitol building itself, but could not make out the platform or the individual people. So like the folks watching at home, we were dependent on the television for our view:
Did that dim our enthusiasm? Not at all. Being out in the crowd on the Mall that morning was a wonderful experience. We chatted with people around us who had traveled from all over the country to be there – from Georgia, from Florida, and from California. It was hard for the kids to see what was happening, so we spent a lot of time hoisting them on our shoulders:
And by chance, we set up shop on the Mall right next to journalists from RFI, a French radio network. I got to chatting with them, dusting off my high-school French, and before the day was out I’d given three interviews. Two were with RFI and the third was with another French journalist (from France Info) who was passing by while I gave the second RFI interview and heard me:
The kids were tickled about all this, and I was too. Still, we had arrived on the Mall around 8:00 for a noontime ceremony, and it would be fair to say that the kids in particular went through stretches of boredom:
The excitement of the ceremony built up slowly. An endless line of politicians and dignitaries were seated on the platform. Then Vice President-Elect Biden took his oath. Aretha Franklin came out and rocked the house with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, which had me and probably a lot of other people misty-eyed in the crowd.
When President-Elect Obama first came on screen, the crowd went bananas. It’s hard to overstate the outpouring of joy that we felt and saw among us. When he took the oath, we stood tall, listened hard, waited for the last words, and roared.
After we got home this week, I was catching up on podcasts of Fresh Air, a radio interview program on National Public Radio. Monday’s program, on Martin Luther King day, featured Congressman John Lewis, who as a young man joined up with Dr. King in the struggle for civil rights, and then Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for The Atlantic magazine who is roughly my age.
Each man spoke eloquently about the ongoing struggle to make good the promise of equality for all in the United States.
John Lewis, describing how the civil rights movement convinced ordinary African Americans to stand up for themselves:
“We would say to people, ‘You know, you’ve been living here for 40 years, for 50 years. Your street is not paved, you have a dirt road. You don’t have clean water. If you want that to change, come to a meeting. Come next Monday. Your neighbors are coming. Your uncle is coming. Your children are coming. You should be there. We’re going to have a march for the right to vote. Don’t be afraid. You may get arrested, but there are a lot of other people who will be getting arrested with you.’ And some people would be convinced, and some would not.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, on what he came to appreciate about Dr. King:
“I don’t know that I had the highest opinion of Martin Luther King as a young person, because to us it looked like a kind of glorification of suffering. … But King believed in white humanity, the humanity of people we don’t necessarily see on a daily basis. And if you think about it, given how we live, Americans in terms of black and white are still fairly segregated. We don’t necessarily interact with each other too often.
“I always felt like it was an incredible leap of faith, as crazy as this sounds, to say, ‘Even though I’ve never met this guy, he still goes home to his family the same way I do. He doesn’t like cutting on his TV and seeing kids get water hosed. He doesn’t like seeing women being beaten for simply wanting to cross a bridge. He may have his little racial hangups – he may not want his daughter marrying a black man – but he can sympathize with the mere thing of wanting to cross a bridge, a simple human act.'”
The high point for me during this long election campaign was Obama’s speech on race relations, which he delivered here in Philadelphia at the Constitution Center. Obama spoke of what he called the “original sin” of our country:
“I can no more disown [Revered Wright] than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.”
To me, that love is the true promise of American equality – not sameness or perfection or unanimity, but a crazy patchwork quilt of a country that everyone claims as our own – the whole thing, frayed edges and all.
After the oath, Obama moved immediately to give his inaugural address:
About two minutes after the end of Obama’s address, the exodus began. It was like being at Times Square around ten minutes after midnight:
We went into the Natural History museum to get inside from the cold – while packed into the crowd we were warm and toasty, and as soon as it started to disperse, we felt the cold and wind again.
My cousin Colleen made it to Washington from Notre Dame, where she is going to school, and she found us at the museum. Family tradition dictates that we take group pictures in front of an elephant, so fortunately there was one in the main hall:
We decided to try and see some of the inaugural parade, even though the Secret Service had closed the parade route early in the morning because it was full. We walked west along the Mall, taking in a beautiful sunset along the way:
We managed to reach the very end of the route, just before the staging area, and we got a sampling of the groups that had marched in the parade:
Eventually we made our way back to a Metro station for the ride back to the hotel. We were tired, sore, sleepy, and very happy.
(Continue on to Wednesday.)