The Inauguration and the Kindness of Strangers
This journey started last February when I flew to Wisconsin at the last minute to see Barack Obama speak on the night of the Potomac Primaries last February. While waiting in line for several hours, I made conversation with an incredibly smart, warm, and politically-aware woman and her son. We stayed in touch after I returned home, and decided that if Obama won, we would go to the inauguration together. He won, and we kept our promise to each other.
Given how little anyone knew and determined to get the best possible spot, we decided to spend the night in DC in the hopes of getting into the mall early.
Rene, Gus, and I arrived at the mall's periphery around 10pm Monday night. The first entrance we tried was closed, so we walked to another entry point and found, to our great surprise, the mall at that entrance was wide open. We walked right up to the front of the unticketed viewing area, and found there the first few score of people already staking out territory. We picked a spot about 100 feet from the start of the free area, back far enough to see the first jumbotron, unfolded an emergency mylar blanket, and sat down, wondering when - and if - we'd sleep.
At first, we were full of energy and warm from our journey. But the temperature dropped into the teens rather quickly, and despite having six layers of clothing and two layers of gloves and socks, I realized I might not have prepared enough for the cold. Imagine snow camping, without a tent or bag.
Enter Savior #1. A tall, dark and handsome man named Jeff on a bicycle saw Rene, her son, and I sitting on a mylar blanket and came over to talk to us. He was planning to enter the mall in the morning, since he was staying with his son at nearby Georgetown University. He was so impressed that we were going to spend the night he offered to help us. He debated going back and bringing us an extra blanket for protection, which we quickly talked him out of. In the end, he insisted I take his pair of gloves designed, it seemed, for Arctic conditions. "What if you don't find us in the morning - how can I get these back to you?" I asked. Jeff said don't worry, he'd find us in the morning. Jeff asked if he should bring anything helpful when he came back. "Coffee!", Rene and I said simultaneously. Those gloves saved me from certain frostbite.
[A quick fast-forward: we never saw Jeff again! So if any of you know a man who gave his gloves to a woman in the mall the night of January 19, please, send him my way. They look expensive, and I really want him to get these back!]
As soon as we had settled into our spot, I wandered off to talk to others in the area. One of the reasons I wanted to come was to talk to the other people who felt the need to be there in person. What were their stories?
The first group I stopped at was a bunch of college-age kids from the Presidential Inaugural Conference, an event to which students with good grades could apply. One of the students was from the Ukraine, another from some other Eastern European country, and the rest were from America. They were seated in a circle facing each other, huddled around what they all wished was a campfire, but which was instead a pile of snacks and sodas from a nearby drugstore. They were all excited to be there, and to talk to each other about their dreams for our country.
One of them, Kyle, told me he was a Republican and had voted for McCain, but was very happy with Obama. Kyle felt he had to participate in such a historic moment, and felt it was really important for Republicans to give Obama the support he needed to do good deeds as president. That was so refreshing to hear!
I saw a bunch of people carrying obviously new cardboard boxes into the mall. I asked if I could have one, and was given one. I wanted Gus, the 10-year-old with us, to be able to sleep in it, since it was getting colder by the minute. Rene joked that if her husband knew her son was sleeping in a box on the mall in such weather he might have to sue her for child abuse. (You'd get the joke if you saw what a great mother Rene is with Gus!)
At some point after midnight, some people walked into our area carrying steaming fresh Starbucks coffee! Starbucks at this hour? I got the address and quickly headed off. As I left the mall area, I grew trepidatious, as security teams were busily fencing off all entrances to the mall. If I left, could I get back in? The closer I got to Starbucks, the greater my doubts became. I found an absolutely packed Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue, the parade route, at about 1:40 a.m. I grabbed drip coffee - no time to wait for a latte - and ran (and I do mean RAN) back to the mall entrance. I felt like I was in the opening credits of the old TV show Get Smart, in that doors and gates were closing right behind me as I ran through. I missed getting shut out of the mall by seconds! (Had I found them closed, however, I was certain I could get back in. Where there's a will, there's always a way. And Will would have been my middle name that night.)
When I came back to the mall and handed out the coffee, I met a guy from Ireland, who was surprised how little people knew about the presidency in this country. To demonstrate, he asked me a couple of questions. I told him he had the wrong person, but he persisted. "Who was the first unelected president?" he asked. "Gerald Ford," I replied, having written about him and that time period extensively. He was shocked I knew the answer - I guess I was the first to have gotten that one right. "What time does the presidency change hands?" "Twelve Noon," I responded, assuming surely many others got THAT one right. Hoping, anyway!
I met a skater from Canada from the "Disney on Ice" show. I met a lot of Canadians in the mall, come to think of it. I think most Americans would be shocked to see how much people of other countries know about our politics, especially compared to how little we know about countries besides this one. I wonder what percentage of the mall crowd was not from America at all. Of course, I talked to plenty of Americans, too!
Somewhere around 2am, a young guy who was obviously unprepared - he had only a sweater and leather coat and an old blanket around him like a shawl - came towards us. I talked to him and said he needed to sit by me so we could keep each other warm. He more than happily complied, wondering aloud what he had been thinking, leaving without any kind of preparation. He was going to school nearby and just wanted to be on the mall and just got up and walked over.
I soon found out our new companion was named Levi, although he was the son of a Catholic and a Muslim. He was also a Republican, and not just any Republican, but one who had actively worked on George W. Bush's 2004 campaign. Now, at 25 years old, he had come to regret not only that decision, but the hypocrisy in his own party, and, as leader of a student group, took his fellow Republicans on directly. How can you claim to be pro-life if you are against the Death Penalty or for war, he challenged them. How can you claim to be for conservative principles of smaller government and then vote Republican in this election when the last Republican president grew the size of government more than his Democratic predecessor? This year, he had worked for Barack Obama, while still adamantly identifying himself as a Republican. I was so thrilled. If the young are seeing past the dogma and rhetoric and thinking so independently on their own, then there is great hope for this country's future!
Levi ended up being Savior #2. As the night progressed, and my feet, thighs, and belly started to feel like blocks of ice, he and I huddled closer and closer together until we fell asleep crumpled around each other, sharing much-needed body warmth. I swear he kept me from getting frostbite last night, and vice versa.
Sunrise on the mall was a lovely sight. A soft pink glow suffused the skies through the branches of leafless cherry trees along the Potomac. The sky above the white dome of the capital changed from black to navy to Obama blue. The mood had changed from quiet hope to jovial excitement. Bodies were still strewn throughout, as people tried to get a last nap in before Obama spoke. Others were careful not to step on the would-be sleepers as they walked across the grass.
I have to say - I've never felt safer anywhere than I felt that night in the mall. There were no bad vibes at all, save from the police when they found out people had taken the garbage boxes that had yet to be set up and were turning them into sleeping mats and windbreaks. And even then, the police kept cool, and respectfully but strongly suggested the boxes be returned, and many of them were. No one on either side wanted to create any incident to mar the event.
Around 8am or so, the nearby jumbotron went on, creating a joyous roar from the nearby crowd. The video and sound from the Sunday concert played. Whoever had that brilliant idea, thank you. Rene and I had been in town Sunday night trying to get into that concert, with no success. It was ideal to be able to see it from the mall, surrounded by museums and monuments while facing the filling flag-draped Capitol steps.
At last, the inauguration ceremony began. Now, the crowd was quite thick indeed, but not scarily so.
The mall crowd laughed mightily every time it was asked to "please stand," as if we had a choice in the matter. Every time Obama came on the screen, people cheered. When Dick Cheney came out in a wheelchair, you could have heard a pin drop. I could practically feel people wanting to boo but then seeing the chair and wondering what had happened.
When Bush was announced, several around me did start to boo. A woman behind me, who had flown in all the way from Guam, got upset, saying he was still our president for the next few minutes, and deserved our respect. I sympathized with both points of view, and had chosen silence, myself.
My tears started just before Obama started to speak. Music is another one of my grand passions. I love a good cello, a good violin, a good oboe, and a good piano. To have all of those playing a beautiful rendition of that old Quaker tune "Simple Gifts" was extraordinary. And not just any musicians, but the best of the best. And I thought of John Williams, who always wanted to be taken seriously, but felt hampered in much of his later career because he became most famous for his score for Star Wars. Finally, Williams was treated like the artist he is, as demonstrated by that haunting and lovely rendition. As I started to cry, Levi put his arm around me and held me, understanding my flood of emotions at that moment.
And then, finally, Obama. OBAMA!!!! The crowds' flags were waving furiously. Chants and cheers, and tears of joy. The flubbed swearing in. The magnificent speech.
And what a speech. It was the first speech I've ever heard where someone dared to tell America, in sum, "grow up." Here are a few of my favorite parts:
... That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet. ...I loved that Obama reached back through history not just to Lincoln, but back to the man whose words inspired the founding of our nation, Thomas Paine, when he spoke these words:
On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. ...
We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place ["Yeah!!" I shouted here], and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. ...
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.
Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. ...
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
... we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. ...
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. ...
This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.
Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive,that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet...it."Obama took that quote from Thomas Paine's "The American Crisis," which opens with these famous words:
These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.Obama's inaugural theme was "a new birth of freedom" - a quote from Lincoln's Gettysburg address. But he wasn't just asking us to end the civil war. He was asking us to do something Thomas Jefferson begged us to do every twenty years: begin a new American Revolution. But in Obama's version, the revolution didn't start within the streets, but within ourselves. He's challenging us to reexam our own thinking, to question our beliefs and their bases. He's also asking us to figure out what we can do without so we can share it with someone else, what time we can sacrifice to help others who are worse off. Obama's powerful ending stirred the mall crowd to cheers and tears as he finished with these words:
America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.After that, I had no desire to stay and see a parade. I was fired up and ready to go. Unfortunately, DC was not ready for us to go. It took us no less than six frustrating hours of wandering from closed metro stops to fenced off streets to being sent by people in authority to dead ends before we finally made our way onto a metro train.
At one point, one authority sent us right into the path of a cop who told us, so unhelpfully, "Turn around and go back." At this point, we'd already been walking over four hours straight, not counting the five hours of standing in the morning and the few hours of sleep any of us got that night. I said to the cop, "On behalf of the crowd, I want to ask where we CAN go." He said again to get back, that they had found "a device," which sounded like he meant a bomb. I assured him I was not trying to endanger anyone, but just wanted to know which way we COULD go, since going "back" was a proven non-exit. He wouldn't or couldn't answer, and started threatening to arrest me, at which point, I politely but firmly asked for his badge number. "Do you really want to do that? Do you really want to go down that route?" he said, as if I were challenging him to a duel. I noticed a man filming the incident with his cell phone. He looked at me and nodded as if to say, yes, I'm capturing all of this. I would probably have pressed the advantage had not a second cop appeared then with an answer to my question, which was truly all I wanted. We took the new path and continued for another half hour, at which point we found an open cafe with people sitting on the floor and more floor space available. We all collapsed there and took in a little food, grateful to have found a reasonably clean spot to sit on. The restrooms stank, but not as badly as the ones in the mall!
When we finally got to an open metro station, it took us over an hour more to get from outside the station to standing in the train. But it didn't matter. We were finally on our way home. And no matter the problems, the people nearly everywhere were incredibly patient. Kind. Mature. Even Gus, our 10-year-old companion, did not complain, though his belly must have been aching for nourishment and his feet craving to be relieved. He asked many questions in the hopes of helping us find a faster way out of town, or in the hopes of at least setting his own expectations. It was heartbreaking to have to say, we don't know when we'll be able to sit down. I don't know how far the next metro is. I don't know how long it will take us to get on it. But he never cried or tried to make demands. He was a model citizen. Rene and her husband have certainly raised this remarkable child well.
I will always treasure this momentous day, and the circumstances that led me to DC to participate in this. I am so grateful to Jeff, to whom I really must return those gloves. I was so thrilled to meet Levi, with his warm hugs and clean reasoning. I am so grateful that Rene allowed me to stay rent free in her hotel room, and that Rene's mother was willing to ferry us from Richmond to Springfield, our metro entry and exit point. I was so entertained with Gus' recitation of interesting facts he had learned en route to the event.
Most of all, however, I am grateful to my fellow citizens, who rose up and helped seize our country back. Whether it remains in our grasp will be up to us. If the people I met at the biggest inaugural party in the world were any indication, our future is in fantastic hands. I pray that it remains so, for many years to come.