It has been over a week since Tuesday, January 20, 2009. I am sure you have read the articles and looked at the pictures and listened to the recaps. Most of you were probably watching live when Almost-President Obama became President Obama in front of two million spectators on the National Mall and many millions more watching on television and the internet in the United States and around the world.
I decided to head to Washington for the inauguration for the same reason I shouldered my way into Times Square an hour before the ball dropped a few weeks ago. I didn’t have clear plans or special access. At worst, I hoped to experience the excitement of a big crowd gathered in celebration. At best, maybe doors would open and I could get a bit closer to history.
My trip to Washington started in Utah. Like many Hollywood celebrities, I spent the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City and then caught a flight to D.C. on Monday for the inauguration. Sadly, any resemblance between me and a celebrity ended at this shared itinerary.
On the flight east, I sat next to a fifth grade teacher named Claire. She taught a class of thirty-five kids in Philadelphia. Claire, an Obama volunteer, told me that she would watch the ceremony with her students on an old television with rabbit-ear antennae, the best a cash-strapped Philadelphia school system could muster. I asked her if she would prefer to be on the Mall for the big day.
“Well,” she replied, “I tell my kids all the time that they can be anything they want to be as long as they work hard. To finally show them – to watch their eyes when Barack Obama takes that oath. there’s no place I would rather be.”
I got my first taste of inaugural madness at the airport in Salt Lake City. Security was heightened by multiple baggage and identification checks, and every seat on the plane was full. This madness intensified – a crush of people in D.C.’s Union Station, streets clogged by traffic, the subways filled to capacity – the closer I got to the Mall, and reached its peak on inauguration morning.
I arrived at 7:30am, clutching a yellow ticket that I hoped would sweep me through the crowds to my seat in front of the Capitol. Three hours, four hand warmers, and one half-frozen street pretzel later, I made it inside the security perimeter. Thousands of other ticketed spectators were not so lucky. It made me wonder: with all of the inauguration expenses and the thousands of police, military personnel, and civilian volunteers on hand, why was the entry process – operating well under capacity at the actual barriers and a complete muddled mess for blocks around the Capitol – so disorganized? Did it say something about the inherent disorder and inefficiency of our government? Did it presage more of the same for the new Obama administration?
But the inauguration was no place for cynicism. And really, no cynicism could survive the turn past the security stations into the Capitol grounds. The Capitol building gleamed in the sun struggling through gray skies. Red, white and blue bunting and flags from every era of United States history hung between the massive pillars supporting the rotunda. And behind me, stretching all the way back to the Washington Monument, almost two million fellow spectators speaking in one voice, a throbbing, visceral roar which rolled over the Mall and reverberated off the Capitol.
This roar is what I will remember most from the ceremony. I cried along with everyone else when Aretha Franklin sang a slow, soulful version of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” I held my breath as Barack Obama took the oath. And I cheered and waved goodbye, for good, to former President George Bush as his helicopter climbed above the Capitol and swooped over our heads immediately after the inauguration. But the sound of that resonant, revelatory human power, from so far away, will stay with me forever.
Later that night I joined a bunch of celebrities, pseudo-celebrities, and well-dressed gawkers like me at the Creative Coalition Ball. Elvis Costello, Sam Moore, and Sting headlined a party which stretched into the wee hours. Sometime around 3am, as Sting chanted “Obama, Obama, Obama” at the end of “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” I couldn’t help but wonder if a fifth grader might be dreaming about the grainy footage he or she watched on an old television in a Philadelphia classroom. Or perhaps was lying awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking, “Someday, maybe me.”