Tuesday, January 20, 2009

7 Things I Learned at the Inauguration

1. Logistically, this event was a few islands of order in a sea of chaos. As my wife and I walked from southeast Capitol Hill toward the Mall, there were inauguration volunteers everywhere, in their red beanies, directing people to the appropriate gates for entering the Mall. I thought, wow, if they are this organized 10 blocks from the Capitol, we're in good shape. Our tickets directed us to the "Silver Gate," at Independence Avenue and 3rd Street S.W., where we found that the line already stretched a very long way back. We spent at least a half hour (maybe more) following a river of people, trying to find the end of our line, which snaked around many (I lost count) city blocks in southwest DC. When we finally reached the end, we were amazed at how quickly the line continued to grow behind us. But in the direction that counted, the line was painfully slow moving and was sometimes hard to discern at all from the general crowd. In one spot, the line came close to an insanely long line of people trying to get into Starbucks, which caused a period of confusion for everybody.

Based on the time and the look of the line, we pretty much accepted that despite our tickets, we would not be seeing any inaugural ceremonies. Not even close, at that pace. But in a weird way, I appreciated the sheer magnitude of the scene and was impressed at how ordered and generally cheerful everyone was. I thought, "If we're not going to see any of the ceremonies, at least it's because so many millions of people are down here trying to do the same thing, and there simply isn't space."

This is when things took a turn in the Lord-of-the-Flies direction. The line had grown so rapidly that the end had meandered around a few blocks and crossed back through the middle. Our line made a loop. You can imagine the confusion. People in were yelling back and forth, "We're in the Silver line," only to be answered, "No, this is the Silver line!"

In all of this mayhem, a couple of red-beanied volunteers showed up and just started shouting, "3rd and Independence! You wanna go to 3rd and Independence!" 

I thought, "Yeah, duh, that's where our gate is. That's why we're standing in line."

But everyone around me took it to mean that we should abandon the line and make a dash straight for the gate. My wife and I watched the line dissolve around us, while further up we could see thousands of people who had not heard the yelling and were still waiting faithfully in line. We joined the defectors, and I felt a smidgen of guilt. I am certain that the people who stayed in that line never got on to the Mall.

The mob ruled. The dash was on. We followed the flow of the crowd, unsure if we were doing the right thing or if the beany people had just been confused. I was sure of one thing: We were definitely going to see the ceremony now. This enormous, determined rush of desperate people would not be turned back by barricades and cops. Too many people would be too pissed to turn around. This was the only time all day when I thought the giant crowd had the possibility to turn into something dangerous. 

We reached the gate, which was surprisingly wide and quick-moving. We breezed through. The guard seemed disgusted that I wanted to show him my ticket. Was the whole ticketed, color-coded sections thing a sham? 

When we got on the Mall, between the Washington Monument and the Capitol, there was still plenty of open space available. We had a great spot, with a good view of the Capitol and a jumbo-screen. 

It's sad to think of the many thousands of people who had traveled a long way for the inauguration, who had tickets, who had shown up several hours early, followed all directions, AND DID NOT GET IN. (Here's one account from just such a person. It sounds like he's describing a bad dream.) I don't know what exactly the problem was. But that long, narrow, meandering line was not necessary for such a wide gate. 

2. The crowd loved progressive Democrats. As we watched the dignitaries being seated on the stage, the crowd cheered or booed nearly everyone the camera showed. In my area, John McCain received polite applause. Fake Democrat Joe Lieberman got the worst boos, besides of course the taunting given to Bush and Cheney. Outside of the Obamas, Bidens, and Clintons, Ted Kennedy got the biggest cheers. Progressive Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman also got a lot of love.  

3. People were quiet and respectful--you might even say prayerful--during Rick Warren's prayer. Whatever controversy there might have been in Obama picking this mainstream Protestant Christian to deliver the invocation, there was no sign of it from where I stood.

4. Before the official ceremony began, the eerily beautiful sounds of the choir echoing off the buildings, combined with giant flags hanging all around and the millions of people waiting expectantly, made the whole event feel strangely like the crowning of Aragorn at Minas Tirith, in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.

5. The big toes on each foot were the coldest parts of my body. 

6. President Obama's speech was good but not mind-blowing. I didn't catch any "We have nothing to fear..." lines on the first pass. I know that's an unfair standard. I'll definitely have to re-read the speech at some point. I felt like he said great things and set the tone for his administration but didn't really pound anything home. I did love the historical perspective in which he couched things. But I was waiting for something that would be a little shocking in it's bluntness and as a hard break from the Bush Era. 

He did say, "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." 

But he did not say:
"As your president, I promise you this: America will never again torture another single human being. Never again. I will do everything in my power as Commander-in-Chief to make sure of it. It is a tragedy and a disgrace that America is even debating torture in the 21st century. I will direct the Justice Department to review all of the previous administration's policies and actions on torture, and if warranted Justice will prosecute Bush Administration officials for war crimes." 

7. The sign I referred to in a previous post was a big hit. More on the sign in a follow-up post soon to come.


Sara said...

Thanks for reporting on your trip! Glad you got in, too!

Becky said...

Awesome post. Wow, what a day! And I was surprised to see all the people hating on that guy you linked to--people in his comments criticizing him for expressing his disappointment. Of course he was disappointed! Sheesh.

Phyllis said...

5. The big toes on each foot were the coldest parts of my body.

Only because you couldn't feel the rest.