On a briskly cold day in January at around 5:45 AM, I pulled up to 17th Ave and L Street, which isn't far from Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC. The atmosphere was serene, almost quiet, yet one could feel the excitement bubbling out from the anticipating crowds making their way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the national mall. A few minutes later, I received a call from a WBTA (a local radio station) asking for some of my thoughts....at the moment that he called I looked forward and saw a majestic site, I rubbed my eyes and in the twilight, saw the White House. It all started to hit me then, the history that was being made, the greatness of America, the civility that we possess in this country, where the most powerful among us willingly gives up his power. Despite all that we had been through, there it was, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, ready for its next occupant.
We made our way to the national mall, first passing through the area around the Washington Monument, we ran into some very helpful volunteers, girl scouts, boy scouts (a favorite of mine, given that I'm an Assistant Scoutmaster) and just regular people. Some offered directions, some gave out maps, some cheered on to “fire up” the crowds and others offered a friendly “hello”. Then came the street vendors, there was absolutely no end to the people selling Obama, well, everything, a person whom I was sharing the experience with referred to the event as “Obama-palooza” partially because of this, Obama buttons (I bought a few), Obama T-Shirts, Obama hoodies, if you can imagine just about anything, it was there with our new President's name on it. After making our way through the crowds it was still relatively early, we arrived at the spot that we would call home for the next 6 hours or so at around 7AM, it was a good spot, close the National Observatory yet still about a half a mile away from the capitol. The distance wasn't really relevant, jumbotrons and speakers had been set up throughout the mall and as far back as the Lincoln memorial so everyone could see the event.
This may be the most shocking part of all, the crowd, in addition to being extremley diverse, with every group represented (Young, Old, Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, Indian etc), all were also extremely polite. After the event I learned that despite the large attendance there hadn't been one arrest....and I never saw behavior that would warrant an arrest either. I saw nor experienced any pushing, shoving, fighting or even argument, everyone that needed to get by provided a polite “excuse me” and passed through. That also being said, the excitement was in the air for sure, people were shouting, cheering and even singing in anticipation of the arrival of the President elect, that all being said, it wasn't “crazy” at all. I received a few text messages asking if the situation was “crazy”, but inact, because of the politeness and almost serenity of the crowd, it really wasn't. No one got violent or even upset, it was an atmosphere of togetherness, a friend of mine likened it to a “football game where we're all rooting for the same team”. He had it right on.
As the hours approached, we we're entertained by a replay of the concert broad casted on HBO on the Sunday before, this added to our excitement and almost feeling of community amongst the crowd. We were standing next to a group of people from Greensboro, North Carolina and we couldn't have asked to have had a better “neighbors” per say for the event. They were just as excited as we were, not only that Barack Obama had won their home state and that he got elected President but that on this day, the spirit of American renewal was upon us all.
Time continued to pass and soon, the moment was beginning to arrive and the dignitaries began to pour in. As they appeared on the jumbotron before the crowd, the reactions went from rousing to amusing. Firstly, Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman were soundly booed (so was President Bush, but not as badly), as Cheney was wheeled out onto the stage, all that I could help to think of was Mr. Potter from “It's a Wonderful Life” and Lieberman, well, I can imagine that the crowd was still not too happy about his endorsement of John McCain. I do wish in many ways that this would not happen, but it gives a clear snapshot of the opinion of the current administration, even a normally unpopular administrations faces wouldn't be booed at an inauguration, but this shows the new low in popularity and the general divisiveness that Bush, Cheney, Lieberman and co. have brought upon this Country. It also showed the real need for renewal, at that moment I realized that we needed this Presidency. The time couldn't have come sooner.
The other reactions we're fine, John McCain received nominal cheers, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (being the last Democratic Presidents) were given roaring receptions and even George HW Bush was cheered. During all of this, everyone's favorite celebrity began to appear on the screens. Everyone from Oprah and Jay-Z to Bruce Springsteen were all present. I usually loath to get hyped up about celebrities, but in this case we saw a number of high profile people who showed an interest in civics and stood for patriotism, perhaps this is a good example that they can set for years to come.
The big moment came, and it came with force, for the rest of my life I will now be able to say when Barack Obama took the oath of office that I was there, standing among a crowd that Martin Luther King Jr. would be so proud to see, surrounded by “Black Men and White Men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics,”, all people from different walks of life standing together in solidarity, supporting our new President, celebrating the casting off of the old and applying the new. A professor of mine said that this inauguration was more about the “seeing” than the “hearing”, I can't help but totally agree. This was the clear moment of change, this is when America renewed itself, this was when Barack Obama, who described himself as a “skinny black kid with a funny name” after a dynamic campaign took the office that he had earned through hard work and determination.
This was when Barack Obama became the President of the United States. Being there for that alone is a privilege itself worth a thousand lifetimes, it is something that I surely will remember with a sense of inspiration, a moment that said above all else embodied the true spirit of this country “With hard work, you can do anything that you try,”.
God bless America.