Live from the National Mall

stageAlong with 1.8 million other people, I had the opportunity to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States. Below are some of my thoughts and experiences of the event, compiled for my family:

We are on the streets by 7:15am. Apparently others have heard that something big is happening on the national mall, because we are far from alone on the usually deserted streets. Families, high school students and grandparents join us from houses all throughout Capital Hill. We move as one large mass toward the Mall.   The air is brisk, but we are dressed for the occasion. Lines of ticket holders block most of the streets on the way to the Mall (a mere 6 blocks away from where we slept the night before). Lines of metal detectors wait for the thousands of ticket holders who will be allowed in at 8am. Everyone is friendly. No one seems to mind that the sun has barely risen and we are moving like schools of fish through increasingly narrow alleys that have been created by fences and poorly-parked tour buses. Only when a detour takes us through an open McDonalds does someone remark on the crowds.

We work hard to keep together. Even though there are only 6 of us, the crowd seems to push us apart. Cell phone service is virtually non-existent, so we stop every few blocks to make sure we still have everyone – if we got separated now, there would be no reunion. Finally, we arrive on Independence Avenue. The street is still open to traffic, but only those with special passes have been allowed to enter the district. We walk on the street, occasionally dodging the car of a Senator or Congressmen on his way to his reserved seat. At the 7th street entrance, police cars and signs tell us that this portion of the mall is already full. We continue on, in good spirits, to the 12th street entrance, near the Smithsonian castle. Volunteers hold up small laminated signs that simply say “Mall. This Way.” At 8:17, we arrive on the mall.

We carve out a space on the mall just big enough for 6 of us to stand in a circle, excited that we are in view of the Capitol, and one of the large jumbotrons. A group of students from Kansas are in front of us, and have laid down large green tarps to sit on. Most of the tarps are vacant, since the students have all piled in the middle, huddled together on the ground for warmth. We begin playing a game of catch phrase. After all, no part of the inauguration is scheduled to start for another 2 and a half hours.

At 9 o’clock or so, the jumbotrons light up with the concert that had taken place on Sunday night. The sound and the picture are incredibly off, but aside from a few joking comments, no one seems to mind. By the time “American Pie” and “Shout” are being sung, the crowd on the mall seems to have forgotten that this is not a live concert. So we sing along, jumping up and down as much for warmth as from enthusiasm. We pass our time making friends with the couple from New York next to us, counting snipers on the rooftops of the Smithsonian museums (9 as far as we could tell) and watching the sea of humanity that has joined us for this historic day. A group of people have brought large beach balls which float their way across the mall, guided by the hands of millions. A news camera continually pans the crowd, who cheer in response to its presence.

At 10:15, the orchestra starts playing and the jumbotron goes lives from inside the Capitol. Congressmen, future members of the Cabinet, Governors and mayors, Senators and the Justices of the Supreme Court are all announced and process out of the doors leading from the Rotunda of the Capitol to the stage of the inauguration. Briefly, the screen shows Barack Obama’s motorcade arriving at the Capitol. The mere sight of his limo is enough to elicit screams of anticipation. Cheers of “Fired up and ready to go!” and “Yes we can” begin to popcorn across the mall. Finally, a near unison “O-BAM-A” cheer rings through the people. We have come to see him, and we are ready.

The past presidents are announced and begin to process onto the stage. A woman behind us insists on calling them all by their number. “Oh, there’s 39! 39!” and “Look at how 39 is ignoring 42!” and “FORTY-FOUR! OBAMA!”. As President Bush appears on stage, a large group of people begin singing “Na-na-na-na na-na-na-na hey hey hey, good-bye”. And the number lady retorts back “I mean, I don’t like him, but you gotta respect the office! Respect the office!”. I am glad that she is here.

And finally. Finally! Barack Obama appears on the screen. The crowd literally cannot contain itself. Cameras flash. Children get lifted onto shoulders. Flags wave. The noise is deafening. Never mind that our feet went numb at hour three or that from where Obama is sitting we are a multi-colored carpet of humanity. We are here, and he is here. We are part of something, together.

Diane Fienstein welcomes the crowd to this historic event. She informs us that we can “please be seated” which elicits some strong words from a few people standing on the mall. Needless to say, Diane does not hear them, and the ceremony continues. Rick Warren gets up to pray.

And then. The moment. Barack Obama stands. Michelle holds up the Lincoln Bible. The very Bible that Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on. Barack Obama will be just the second man to vow to uphold and protect the Constitution on these sacred words. Chief Justice John Roberts stands to administer the 35-word presidential office. The crowd is briefly surprised when Roberts (twice) puts “faithfully” in the wrong place, but our fearless leader presses on, so we continue to listen. Obama’s “so help me God” is lost in a sea of joy. Cheers erupt from the national mall. A group of people in front of us has brought confetti from home and throws it as high as the wind will let them. American flags wave with reckless abandon. Complete strangers are hugging each other. I have never seen anything like it.

Then, Obama gives his speech. Local Starbucks have been distributing coffee cups with quotes from past inaugurations for days. I have had enough cups of coffee (let alone taken enough history classes) to appreciate the lasting power of a presidents’ inaugural address. To my mind, Obama’s did not disappoint. Having never heard Obama speak live, the effect is astounding. I have never seen a person able to captivate such a large and diverse audience. In a crowd of 1.5 million people, no one makes a sound. No one offers their commentary, or talks above him. The entire audience seems to understand that words matter, and that Obama’s words matter more than most.

How amazing to stand on the National Mall, at the nation’s Capital, one day after we remembered Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and witness our first African American president address one of the largest crowds Washington has ever seen. I stand listening to Obama’s soaring prose, harkening back not to Lincoln, but to Washington; to the founding of this great nation, and realize the magnitude of what is happening. History is not being undone, but it is taking a sharp turn, and we will never be the same.

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