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January 22, 2009

people power (notes from the Inauguration)

Monday morning: the Delta shuttle to DC is disappointing. It's only two-thirds full, and some of the passengers (to judge from their cell-phone conversations) are not going to the Inauguration.

I meet the rest of my family at National Airport, coming in from Atlanta. Their flight is more like what I'd been hoping for. I watch the passengers disembark; they are predominantly older African Americans, dressed up, and beaming. The Metro is also a scene of jubilation. I figure I have spent close to 7,000 hours on the Metro so far in my life. I have often seen it as crowded as this, but I have never seen it so jammed with rookies. No one knows where we are or what to do next. But the atmosphere is supportive, friendly, and patient.

There are almost two million extra people in town, yet right away we see Imani from my daughter's former 3rd-grade class, and her Mom. This sets a pattern: during the rest of our visit, we meet about a dozen old friends and neighbors in the midst of the vast crowds.

Monday afternoon: At our neighborhood's CVS drugstore, the manager is out in front of the cash registers, organizing customers into lines, offering to assist each one, and generally acting like a gracious host. He is an African American man of about 65. Of course, I don't know his biography, but he reminds me of many lifelong DC residents I have met. I sense that this is his city, that this day is of enormous importance to him, and that he wants every last visitor to feel welcome. The City of Northern Hospitality and Southern Efficiency is turning into its very opposite.

Across the street from the house where we are staying, a small clutch of protesters holds signs identifying Barack Obama with the Beast of the Apocalypse. I consider reminding them to be nonviolent, and wish they were elsewhere.

At a party for one of the Campaign's policy committees, the actor Forest Whittaker speaks, followed by the man nominated to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan. Donovan says that he was initially humbled and even overwhelmed by his appointment, but then he started to get a flood of emails offering help and helpful advice. He decided that he couldn't do the job, but we could. This is very much in the spirit of the day.

Tuesday morning: Our hosts are European journalists, and one of them feels he must reach his assigned seat on the Mall to cover the Inauguration properly. My family and I are supposed to be in the Rayburn House Office Building for a party at 9 am. But the television is full of stories about amazing crowds, closed roads, and packed Metro stations. So we strategize about how to get downtown. Our host heads off by bike. We hitch a car ride to Dupont Circle and then walk--joining rivulets, then streams, and finally a mighty estuary of human beings on the Mall.

We find a place to sit inside the World War II Memorial, far from the Inauguration but within clear sight of two Jumbotrons. The Memorial (built in the 1990s) is unfortunately reminiscent of fascist architecture. Fascists, of course, could fill vast monumental spaces with their followers. A massive assembly of human bodies is politics at its most elemental. Our power today is great--we could storm into the Capitol if we chose to. Such power is neutral; we could assemble either for good or ill. It strikes me very forcefully that these people have assembled for good. They are inclusive, peaceful, hopeful, respectful, and serious. When the very distant master of ceremonies asks the official guests to "take their seats," we all sit down on the ground--which is great because the kids can see the Jumbotrons. The whole group rises and sits several times in unison.

It is a civil crowd. According to press reports, some people on the Mall chant when they see Bush: "Na Na Hey Hey … Goodbye." The people around me (to judge by their buttons and hats) are fervent Obama supporters. But they applaud George W. Bush politely when the new President thanks him for his service. There is no sign of dissent when Rick Warren gives his invocation. I should emphasize that I am all for protest and conflict. But it is impressive to see a powerful, victorious, mass movement that is modest, disciplined, and self-limiting. We hear later that the police make no arrests whatsoever during the Inauguration, and a friend of a friend who works for DC Homicide says that it is a remarkably crime-free 24 hours, despite the extra two million people and all the alcohol they are consuming.

On the way out, the millions file through streets of empty office buildings, watched by emergency and police officials. It is eerily reminiscent of 9/11, when I was in the same city. But this time we are passing through the streets voluntarily, in peace. Obama spoke the literal and plain truth, on behalf of all Americans, when he said, "for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

All the academic literature says--with ample justification and evidence--that levels of civic participation are low, that voluntary collective action is only possible in small groups, that politics has little salience. Yet one in every 150 Americans is using his or her body for a peaceful political act. They have come from every part of the country to do so, some on chartered buses, with no place to stay or to eat. They have brought their babies and their grandparents with them. And they are filled with love for one another.

We find warmth and food in a crowded restaurant. My phone has been out of service for a few hours because of the enormous demand. An email shows up--it's a very positive peer review of a book manuscript of mine that's under review. If a pollster asked me, "Are you better or worse off since the Obama Administration began?" I would have to say, "Much better off."

Tuesday Evening: We first visit an unofficial ball in the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue. Many of the guests attended Harvard Law School with Obama and volunteered heavily for him this last year. It is a mature crowd, and not too giddy, but the atmosphere is quietly jubilant. We also have tickets to the official Youth Ball, despite not being at all youthful any more. We join an enormous line of real youth in fancy clothes. The night is cold. The line moves along for an hour or so and then stalls, for us, right about where John Hinkley fired his shot. We are still standing there when the presidential motorcade arrives and the new First Couple slips into the building. We give up 15 minutes later and go back to the Cosmos Club for some reviving champagne. The youth who were turned away from the Hilton are a little grouchier than anyone we've seen so far--they paid $75 each, came from across the country, and were oh-so-close to Kanye West, Barack Obama, and a few thousand of their own delirious peers. But considering their disappointment, they are a remarkably resilient group. A few text messages, and they are off to the next thing.

As for us, we're in bed by 12:30 and ready to answer emails the next morning. What did the man say? "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

January 22, 2009 3:26 PM | category: Barack Obama | Comments


Hah! I was leaning on the WWII Memorial to watch the address.

All the best Peter,


January 22, 2009 11:04 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Joseph Sinatra

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