A couple years ago, in what might have been my own version of the midlife crisis, I made a list of things I wanted to do while I still could. Among the items was to see a presidential inauguration. And on the evening of November 4th, while watching Barack Obama's acceptance speech, I knew it had to be this inauguration. Once that thought was in my head, I didn't really have a choice. My sister lives in the D.C. area, and I had frequent-flier miles.
So here, from the perspective of one little drop in the sea of humanity, is a description of Washington, D.C., on January 20th:
I was up at 6 a.m. and out the door at 7, like a springlet on a hillside miles from the ocean. On the street I joined a larger flow, then a wall of people on the train. I wedged into a person-sized hole, and at each station we said we'd never be able to make room for any of the platform throng. Once, somebody cracked us up with a "Yes we can!"
Downtown was a river of people. We filled six-lane avenues and poured down sidewalks. Crossing the street was like swimming a river, and if you wanted to take a picture or stop for any reason, you had to get in the leeway of a street sign or vendor truck.
The energy was joyful, confident, even giddy. We were doing the "Gimme an O ... gimme a B" and then all yelling together, "OBAMA!" We were waving flags, sporting glitter, and strutting our collective stuff.
I made for the hill at the Washington Monument to have a look. Between there and the Capitol building, which is about a mile and a half away, was nothing but people. It was a human landscape. Our springs and creeks and rivers had formed a sea.
Like water seeking to get closer, we backed up against tight spots and street crossings, eddied behind buildings, and streamed into open areas. The Mall is a mile or more long, fully 200 yards wide, and all of that was filled with people.
I headed back to the monument, high ground. By 11 a.m., it was so crowded I couldn't change places. Whenever I looked around, I saw others doing the same, all with expressions of pure, happy awe. Almost 2 million human beings, all in one place for the same reason!
Up on the Jumbotrons, as the ceremony got started, we saw various political celebs, who got various responses. Clinton, Carter, Gore, Powell, and Kerry: big cheers. Cheney got "Dr. Strangelove" jokes for being in a wheelchair.
Bush got the biggest boos, loud enough to be heard on TV. When he was officially introduced, the crowd, by now a single living thing, serenaded him with "Na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey, Goodbye!" A proud American moment, I say.
The ceremony was something of a blur. I was a long way from a Jumbotron, with a delay of a couple of seconds between the video and the audio — and probably five seconds between speakers talking and us hearing it. Aretha Franklin was amazing, her voice careening all over the landscape.
When it came time for Obama, some 500,000 cameras were hoisted into the air. The crowd was poised like a slingshot, waiting for "So help me God," and when he said that, the cheer started down by the Capitol and came to us like a wave, and it swept us into pandemonium. Everyone was hopping and clapping and waving flags, and I looked out towards the mall and saw all those thousands and thousands of flags, whipping back and forth.
Afterward, the crowd broke up in all directions, some lingering like puddles in the dusty, windswept, completely trashed mall. From that point on, it was all about gathering souvenirs and getting home. Up in the neighborhoods, stragglers were showing signs of fatigue, and the once-mighty crowd was thinning back into streams.
I was exhausted but glad and proud to be among millions of Americans cheering the new and jeering the old. I felt a genuine national pride that day, and I was part of one of the greatest gatherings in the history of our country. That doesn't make me special or accomplished, just lucky. And no matter what happens the next four years, at least we can all say we remember when President Obama gathered us together and said, "Let's do better."