WASHINGTON D.C. – All night and all morning, trickles of people turned to streams, flowing out of Metro stops and Greyhound buses, through tunnels and down city streets. Those streams turned to rivers, all headed for the same destination: an ocean of bodies occupying nearly every patch of green on the National Mall, from the Washington Monument, east to Capitol Hill.
More than one million happy revelers came to the nation’s capital on Tuesday to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration as our 44th president, and they overwhelmed the District of Columbia. Thousands with valid tickets (this journalist included) found their entry into the secure area cut off and were forced to readjust on the fly and head west for a spot on the Mall where they could watch the show on a giant television monitor. Checkpoints and closed roads turned what would have been a 10-minute walk into an hour-long hike. And the temperature – in the upper 20s – left us huddling together with strangers to stay warm.
Yet none of this could obscure our joy (and for some, disbelief) at seeing a young, visionary African-American take the oath from the old stooges that have dominated American politics until now. (Perhaps Supreme Court Justice John Roberts was in disbelief as well, as he stumbled over his reading of the oath to President Obama.)
Out in the cold, facing logistical nightmares and the realization that the days and months ahead would be anything but easy for Obama, the inauguration of our candidate – our inauguration – felt more like the beginning of a pilgrimage than a giant party. People wept. People sang. People shivered, and hugged and kissed. People (like myself) who never could have imagined singing the national anthem or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” – and meaning it – crooned along with Aretha Franklin.
And yet, the significance of this inauguration felt too big for words, almost impossible to measure. Our experience of history, both that of our country and that of our world, is but a tiny window that lets in a little light, but doesn’t let us touch the sun.
At times this week I’ve felt like a child. Someone tells me that the event unfolding before me is big, monumental, even earth-shattering. But I’m too young to get it. All that I know is limited to my experiences in the few years I’ve spent on this earth.
A woman I met on the train Tuesday morning, as we headed downtown for the inauguration, held two children on her lap, aged 5 and 8. She said that the older boy had cried when she turned off his television and sent him to bed early the previous night before this morning’s 4 a.m. wake-up call. She told him that something big was happening today – we were inaugurating an African-American commander in chief, something perhaps more unlikely than any other event in our history. And her son had looked back at her, puzzled, unable to comprehend what she was telling him.
I realized that I was that boy too, as were most of the people on that train. I thought of President Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, and remembered their wide grins when they took the stage at both the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August and Grant Park in Chicago on Nov. 4. Could they possibly recognize the significance of what was happening to the nation, and to their own family, this fall and winter?
The emotion we were able to measure was that of bidding goodbye and good riddance to George W. Bush, a failed president, a leader utterly lacking in vision, even a war criminal. When he and Dick Cheney (in a wheelchair, no less, what karma!) emerged from the Capitol building, thousands across the National Mall sang, “Nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey-hey, goodbye!” though the national villain may not have heard us over the military band’s playing of “Hail to the Chief.”
Shortly after the inauguration ended, a helicopter left the Capitol and flew over the Mall, over the Washington Monument, where we huddled together. A girl looked up, pointed at the ‘copter and exclaimed, “There goes Bush!” and the crowd cheered again.
The helicopter’s whirring blades raised a vicious wind swirling around the Monument that picked up dust, dead grass and debris and forced us to close our eyes. Along with everything else we had to savor, we also had a parting gift from Bush.