Saturday, January 24, 2009
Inauguration and Expectation
I was there. ...though I didn't get a t-shirt touting the fact.
There are moments in history we collectively witness and a few people witness those moments up front. Many - if not most - of these moments are largely unanticipated, or their broader cultural effect are unanticipated: the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, JFK's assassination or Woodstock, for instance. We like to say where we were "when we heard," because it's a shared experience, but when we come across someone who was on the ground when it happened, we listen more intently. "You were at Dealey Plaza? You were at Pearl Harbor? You were at Watergate that night? What did you see? How did you react?" As a first-person witness to the most rattling tragic event in recent national history, I have discovered what a bizarre, morbid privilege it is to have "been there." Witnesses shape memory.
Because there are so few moments when we'll get to be a witness to historical moments that are planned and anticipated, it seems a crying shame not to witness them up-close, if we have the resources to. Life is too short to pass up moments of greatness (and happiness) if it's within driving distance. With that in mind, Honey and I woke at 0-dark-hundred and made our way to DC to see the swearing in of our 44th President. (Hopefully, you've figured that out by the photos above.)
It was freezing. Very freezing. At one point, I began to worry that I may actually develop frostbite. We bought little heating packs to place in our gloves - a purchase I was concerned would be a rip-off from the vendor, but ended up being the best $5 I spent that day. We made it to the Mall a little before 8AM and people slowly filtered in for the next several hours. After hearing some reports - particularly of the Purple Tunnel of Doom, crowd-averse, clausterphobic Molly's nightmare scenario - I consider us lucky. People, though, were in amazingly good spirits; laughing, singing and dancing along with Sunday's concert that was being re-played on the jumbotrons.
When Barack Obama completed his oath, the cheer that went up was extraordinary. It was official: he is our president, now. The shackles had fallen, the windows had been thrown open, the baby had been born, the muzzled voice liberated, the well had been tapped, the geode had been shattered open. The cry was a delirious, elated catharsis after both surviving the last eight years of miserable, selfish leadership and after generations of warring the behemoth of institutionalized and tacit racial injustice. It felt like people cheered for a solid 60 seconds. I cried. I cried several times that day. I'm tearing up, now. People around us danced. I couldn't help but laugh, as well. Honey whooped and hollered when I really only expected him to cheer. That was really fun! It was a fantastic moment that I fervently hope time will never take from me.
Our nephew, Dave, came with us. He's almost 16. He likes Obama, but I think it's more because he's a popular icon and because Dave lives in a mostly-liberal area. He's at an age where he's very concerned about being caught up in the latest fad and maintaining popularity. I don't know that he understands the influence of ideology and politics. I don't think he quite understands the weight of our nation having elected our first black president, either. How much of that is generational, I don't know. And maybe, that Dave is unimpressed by the fact that our country elected a black man is more a testament to how far we've come since my parents were 16, and even I was 16, than it is that we've elected him.
But I'm still shocked and awed. I did presume I would live to see the day. I'm just surprised it would come this early in my life. And I presumed he'd be a Republican. Or, as Honey presumed, that we'd see a black vice president before we saw a black president. I also presumed we'd see a woman first. I'm still waiting for that one; confident that I will see that in my lifetime, now. (I couldn't get behind Hillary. I felt it was too soon; I'm not a fan of dynasty's in a land of democracy and didn't want a Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton sandwich. Also, watching her for several years, I wanted a little more daylight between her and W. Particularly on the war, from the beginning.)
Obama's popularity is currently really, really high. Hopes for him are stratospheric. The marketing and media frenzy that's surrounded Obama can really only hurt people's expectations, though. There's only so much even the most effective president can do. He's governing 300 million people, a little less than half of whom elected him and probably a quarter of whom boldly despise him and he'll need the support, or at least patience, from each of them to begin to make a dent in the flaming pile of shit that W left him. I do not envy any president the office, but I really don't envy the administration that has to tackle the uglies we face now. I will be pleased with good enough. All I really want for our incoming president is to restore our reputation around the world and make every effort to help "the least of these" in our county. Economy, Iraq, Healthcare - those are my biggies. If he can break a few of those juggernauts' legs, I'll be happy.