Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Witness to President Obama's Inauguration

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on January 29th in Metro √Čireann by Charles Laffiteau
I hope you have been enjoying my columns about my recent trip to India, but in my next two columns I am going to take a brief detour from recounting my Indian “adventure” to discuss my most recent trip back to the states last week for Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as America’s 44th President.
Having already been a witness to history when President Obama was officially nominated as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, I was extremely grateful for the opportunity to once again be a witness to history. But I must confess that I was also wondering how the experience of seeing President Obama take the reins of power in Washington DC on 20 January could possibly equal what I had experienced less than 5 months earlier on 28 August in Denver Colorado. Boy oh boy, was I ever wrong.
Hmmm….Lets just say that I made the mistake of underestimating the power of being one of 2 million witnesses to history as opposed to being one in a crowd of only 85-90,000 people. In my defense, I had truly been awestruck in Denver looking up from my vantage point on the floor of the Democratic convention at the thousands of people jammed into every corner and seat at Mile High Stadium. This was also the largest crowd to have ever heard a US Presidential candidate deliver a nomination acceptance speech.
I had also never before been to a Presidential inauguration or a political gathering of any kind numbering more than a few hundred thousand people. Of course the only other Presidential inauguration I have ever been invited to was President Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981, which drew a crowd of only half a million people. Well if you think the sight of 500,000 spectators is awe inspiring, how does one even begin to describe what it’s like to turn around from your spot on Capitol Hill and look behind you at a crowd estimated to be almost 2 million strong? I’m sorry, but even now, days later, I still can’t come up with the words to adequately describe the sight and the feelings it evoked.
However, much like my trip to India, my journey to President Obama’s presidential inauguration had more than a few moments of tension prior to my arrival on the lawn of the US Capitol building. In fact, with less than an hour to go before President Obama took his oath of office, I was still standing in a packed queue of several thousand people at one of the four entry gates for those lucky enough to have tickets. But that was only the last of my moments of anxiety which had actually begun several hours earlier.
I had departed my friend’s home in Arlington Virginia some three hours earlier, at 8am, so that I could catch the Metro subway train for the fifteen minute trip into the city to a stop less than a half hour walk from the entry gate for US Capitol grounds ticket holders. I had been told that these entry gates would open at 9am so I figured I had allowed myself plenty of time to get there and grab a good viewing spot. Unfortunately I had also not accounted for the fact that the trains into the city would be so jammed with passengers who had gotten on at earlier stops, that there would be no room left for passengers to get on where I was at the Metro stop in Pentagon City.
But having some experience riding the rails, I also knew that if the trains coming into Pentagon City were already full at 8am, then this would remain the case for at least the next couple of hours. So I decided to jump out of the queue for the train to the city in favor of a seat on the virtually empty train heading the other way out of the city. I knew that while this detour would cost me some precious minutes, I would also be guaranteed a spot on the train when it turned around and started back into the city.
But when the outbound train stopped at Reagan International Airport I took a chance and hopped off and waited for the next inbound train, thinking maybe I could save a bit of time this way. As it turned out I was lucky enough to just squeeze onto the next train into DC and arrived at my original planned destination just before 9am. But those people I left behind at Pentagon City didn’t even get on a train until about 10:30am, so I was very glad I decided “to go south in order to go north.” After I got off at Metro’s Chinatown stop, I walked another 10 blocks to the entry point for my gate, only to find a large queue of ticket holders waiting to be let through to the entry gate on the next street.
Since this crowd wasn’t moving I fell in behind an ambulance which was slowly moving through the crowd towards my ultimate destination, the US Capitol. When the ambulance reached an open area at the next intersection past the throng I had been caught in, I turned to my right and walked into another queue of several thousand only this one was right in front of my entry gate. I looked at my watch and it was 9:45am so I figured now I was sure to get in. To my chagrin however, I remained in this queue for the next hour and a half, pressed so tightly by people on all sides that it was impossible to fall down or move in any direction other than forward towards the entry gate.
But my tension evaporated at 11:15am when they finally allowed me to go through the gate and the omnipresent metal detectors. I literally ran to a spot between two portable loos just behind the people who were seated on the Capitol lawn and wedged myself into the small opening between them. Granted this wasn’t the best smelling spot on the Capitol grounds but it gave me an unobstructed view of President Obama’s entire inauguration ceremony.
I count myself as very lucky to have made it to my viewing spot “between the loos” for several reasons. After the inauguration was over I talked with two ladies who had the same kind of tickets I had at an Italian restaurant where I had lunch. They told me they had remained in the same queue I had bypassed by following the ambulance, and as a result missed the entire inauguration because they never even made it to the entry gate.
Then when I was on the Metro returning to Arlington, I talked with a couple that had silver tickets for the viewing area next to the Capitol’s reflecting pool. They had arrived at 6am and because they had arrived so early, they were in a huge queue that was directed into the Third Street tunnel to wait until the entry gates opened. In this case the early bird didn’t catch the worm however, because no one came to get them until it was too late to clear security and get to their ticketed spots next to the reflecting pool. After listening to them I was actually grateful I had arrived later than I originally planned.
Fortunately for me, my only moment of disappointment on this historic day came shortly after I got to my viewing spot on the Capitol lawn. As President Bush and his wife Laura were introduced shortly before 11:30am, many in the crowd around me booed lustily. Mind you, while I have been one of the Bush administration’s harshest critics over the last 6 years, I thought this public display of disrespect towards the outgoing President and his wife was both uncalled for and in poor taste.
But the sour mood among some of my fellow spectators in the crowd quickly evaporated when President Obama, his wife Michelle and his family were introduced to a rousing cheer as they joined President Bush and former US Presidents Clinton, H. W. Bush and Carter on the Inaugural Platform. It was at this point that I turned around and for the first time looked down at the 2 million people standing behind me. This vast crowd stretched as far as my eyes could see down the National Mall, past the Washington monument and all the way to the Lincoln Memorial some 2 miles (3 kilometers) away. The sight of this gave me goose bumps and a warm feeling about what the future holds.
In the spirit of a new era of bipartisan politics, President Obama picked a prominent social conservative minister, Rick Warren, to deliver the Inaugural invocation, a choice that infuriated many progressive Democrats. This sentiment was underscored when I, in fact, heard a very distinct murmur of dissatisfaction rippling through the crowd around me when Rick Warren was first introduced. But Warren’s invocation was actually quite soothing and nonpartisan for the most part.
While I thought it was a mistake that Warren chose to lead the crowd in saying the “Lords Prayer” (which is so particularly Christian) at the end of his invocation, I guess I shouldn’t have been since he is, after all, an evangelical Christian minister. But except for this gaffe, I thought Warren’s invocation was appropriately focused on the need for national unity. One of the most memorable lines I remember him saying was; “Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us.”
Chief Justice John Roberts then proceeded to screw up administering the oath of office such that he, and now President Obama, repeated it in a private ceremony a day later in order to ensure the constitutionality of the swearing in process. But President Obama was unflustered by this mistake, delivering his 18 minute inaugural address without so much as a single hitch.
But President Obama’s inaugural address wasn’t as lofty and inspirational as many in the crowd expected given the President’s reputation as a skillful orator and speech writer. I would characterize it as a very sober and serious speech and yet, one that still included a large measure of determination and hope regarding America’s future. Although President Obama used it to repudiate many of the policies of President Bush, he was also very careful and made sure that he never personally attacked him in the process.
I think the following quotes from President Obama’s speech neatly summarize the sober and yet hopeful tenor of his inaugural address; “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.” He also acknowledged those who doubt that we can overcome these challenges saying that; “There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”
President Obama also acknowledged that the rest of the world was hopefully watching and looking to America to lead it through the current economic crisis as well as to help resolve some of the world’s numerous ethnic and religious conflicts when he said; “We are ready to lead again.” He repudiated the Bush administration’s use of torture and its curtailment of civil liberties by saying that this was a “false choice between our safety and our ideals” but also warned the enemies of the United States that; “Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”
The inauguration ceremony ended with a wonderful (and somewhat humorous) benediction delivered by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, a civil rights veteran and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King. He acknowledged America’s racial divisions and the need for a continuation of progress in addressing them, saying; “We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around (crowd laughs) when yellow will be mellow (crowd laughs harder), when the red man can get ahead man (still more laughter) and when white will embrace what is right.” What can you say to this closing line from Rev. Lowery on a most remarkable day but, “Amen”.

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