January 20, 2009. The bumperstickers for months have read: “January 20, 2009. End of an error.” Eight long years of George W. Bush. Eight long years of “if you dissent, you’re a traitor.” Of ignoring our core values in the name of security. Eight long years. And on Tuesday, January 20, 2009, it came to an end.
I thought long and hard about whether to try to be there in Washington for the inauguration. A new President. For the first time in our history, a black President. For the first time in eight years, a President I voted for, and supported, and felt good about. The crowds were predicted to be ridiculous. The chances of getting any kind of tickets slim to none. The weather cold, bitterly cold, with snow or at least snow flurries predicted. So what was I to do? Simple: I decided to go. To do whatever I had to, to be able to be there, to feel it, to be part of it. I was already going to be in Virginia for the birthday party for my beloved nephew and godson Duncan, so… I had to go.
The first order of business was getting tickets. More than anything else, I needed mass transit tickets. As the signs said, traffic was going to be a nightmare and for most of the city you couldn’t drive at all:
Thanks to StubHub and eBay, I managed to get a round trip ticket on the Fredericksburg line of the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter train and two tickets for bleacher seats at the parade (it was cheaper to buy two than to buy one). Once my brother Bill heard I had a second parade ticket, he decided he had to go too. So we scrounged and scrounged and finally came up with a second VRE ticket, even on the same trains. So far so good…
Tuesday morning, we left the house well before daybreak and drove to Quantico to catch the VRE into the District. Two charter buses full of passengers had the same plan, but everyone was in good spirits as we waited for the train.
Inauguration VRE train
Once we got off the train at L’Enfant Plaza, it was easy: just follow the signs held up by very cold (but very happy and enthusiastic) volunteers:
We managed to find a good spot on the National Mall between the Smithsonian Castle and 12th Street. There was a Jumbotron not far ahead of us, and we could see and hear fairly well. By the time the sun rose, the National Mall was full.
National Mall as the sun rose
People came alone, in pairs, in groups, in families, all looking to be part of the moment:
Family at inauguration
Inaugural montage: people
They came with hats and buttons and jackets and flags and signs to show their views:
Inaugural montage: signs
Everywhere you looked, there was security of one kind or another:
Inaugural montage: security
And it was cold. Cold cold cold. Low to mid-20s, maybe. A bit of wind. No snow, however… (though it clouded up and seemed a bit threatening for the last few minutes of the Bush Presidency, it was otherwise clear and completely clear and sunny by the time the new Vice President and President were sworn in!) And we ended up standing there in the cold from before 8 a.m. to just before noon when the ceremony got underway. People did what they had to, to try to stay warm.
None of it — not the cold, not the security — dampened the enthusiasm in the slightest:
People paid a great deal of attention to what we could all see and hear on the Jumbotron. And folks made it clear where they stood by their reactions to what they could see and hear. When Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut was shown, he was soundly and roundly booed. When former Vice President Al Gore appeared, he got a nice round of applause.
No real reaction, nothing negative, for either Cindy or John McCain. (As far as we could tell, Sarah Palin wasn’t there — she surely wasn’t shown on the Jumbotron — I’d have loved to have heard the crowd’s reaction to her.) Nothing much by way of reaction to former President Bush or former President Carter. Some polite applause, nothing else. That all changed when the last former President appeared: former President and Mrs. Clinton were cheered, loud and long.
When Vice President Dick Cheney was wheeled into the viewing area, a whole section of the crowd started singing the Darth Vader theme song!!! And when President Bush was shown, in the tunnel area approaching the viewing area and then emerging into the viewing area, the crowd made it quite clear when it stood. As a group, they sang: “Nah nah nah nah, hey hey hey… goodbye!” (I hear that the media regarded that as tacky. It may have been, but where we were standing it was obviously heartfelt and spontaneous.)
Every time any of the Obamas appeared on the Jumbotron, the crowd reacted with applause, cheers and flag-waving. Michelle Obama was warmly greeted, and the Obama girls were definite crowd pleasers. (I heard later that both girls were wearing J.Crew outfits — and that the J.Crew website crashed that afternoon with the press of people trying to get those outfits for their kids!)
Everyone quieted down nicely as Joseph Biden of Delaware was sworn in as Vice President of the United States:
Biden sworn in
And then the moment came… the moment everyone had been waiting for:
"I, Barack Hussein Obama, ..."
And the crowd on the Mall went wild, throwing hands and confetti into the air, waving flags and screaming:
The crowd went wild
People applauded. They grinned. They sang. They hugged each other. They shouted Obama’s name. The crowd noise was so deafening, you literally couldn’t hear yourself think. It was wonderful.
Hugs and cheers
Smiles and cheers
We never managed to make it over to the parade route. Though we had carefully scoped out the route to walk using public information that emphasized where to be able to cross Pennsylvania Avenue, what nobody ever reported was that Constitution Avenue would be closed. Since the public info said you had to be through security by 1 p.m., and we realized there was no way we could make that, we decided to walk around, get souvenirs for both of Bill’s boys, and see what we could see. And one of the things we saw was Bush’s last flight on Marine One as he came down the Mall and back up and off one last time to Andrews AFB.
Bush's last ride
Eventually, we decided to start making our way out of the District. That meant we had to make our way past the Capitol towards Union Station. That building sure looked good all decked out:
The Capitol all dressed up
We had to walk a convoluted route to get to the train station,and when we got around to the side of the Capitol where the parade was supposed to start from, we saw that the military honor guard was still on the steps and the parade hadn’t yet started. So we did get to see some of the parade (the groups were standing there, shivering and literally pale with the cold):
We couldn’t imagine what was delaying things, but just kept on the long cold route to the train station, where we had to wait out in the cold to finally be allowed in, and then had to wait for the train home. That’s when we found out that Senator Kennedy had collapsed at the Congressional Luncheon and that’s why the parade had been so terribly delayed. We felt a whole lot better about not making it to the bleachers then — we would have missed the train if we’d waited for the parade! So it all worked out in the end, I suppose.
And it was worth every bit of cold and discomfort and annoyance. It was a moment I never expected to see in my lifetime, a moment that made me so very very proud to be an American. As I said to my brother as we waited for the train, we have a President now who is smart and capable and who speaks English with proper sentences and words that exist and make sense. How bad can the next eight years be?