The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Pomp and Real World Circumstance
Musings on the Inauguration and Washington being Washington
“Tradition is only a readymade. It’s for us to make a new gesture—to use it as a reference, more as a starting point than conclusion.”
No American city rolls out tradition better than Washington at Inauguration time. My wife Mary and I were attending our first, and likely only, swearing-in ceremony. We travel to DC frequently from our home outside of Boston and cherish every visit, but this trip was special. It was the denouement of months spent as Obama campaign ground gamers. As usual, we arrived with a well-planned itinerary, but as with most journeys, it was our take-aways from unanticipated detours and impromptu forays into the overlooked nooks and crannies of the city that gave us pause for reflection.
Two pre-Inaugural experiences helped set the tone for our visit: first, we had to pay our dues by attending a pre-Inauguration workshop intended to harness the momentum of Obama’s volunteer base to grow grassroots support for his key second-term initiatives. Those close to the Obama campaign have heard him recount how a cherubic, Energizer Bunny of a woman named Edith Childs lit up one of those grueling, no-budget, nascent, pre-name-recognition stops by unleashing what became its trademark chant, “Fired up! Ready to go!” This unlikely event involved a cheap motel with torrential rains pounding on the roof in Greenwood, South Carolina, a crossroads of a town we have actually visited courtesy of my wife’s native roots. This diminutive and modest icon, outsized by her passion and relentless commitment to winning the president’s first and second elections, had become family. Encountering Edith at the workshop was intended to mobilize us for the days ahead. It worked.
Second, we spent time with a young friend, a junior-year student at a prestigious DC university. Here is a very accomplished young man driven by well-articulated career objectives whose multiple internships have gained him a front row seat on how Washington works. It was so endearing and inspiring to see how emotionally and intellectually invested he was in the Inaugural. This is a student of history whose enthusiasm about this monumental event, and his desire to absorb all of its nuances, led him at 4:00 AM on the eve of Inauguration Day to steal onto the National Mall and the Lincoln Monument, both of which were completely deserted. Talk about the spiritual power of place! Here, on the site where the nation’s next landmark chapter was soon to be written, he was able to commune in absolute solitude with greatness, past and present. His photographs of Lincoln are starkly beautiful and penetratingly profound, and I admit to being more than a little envious.
So here we arrive on the wings of victory, sought-after tickets in hand, feeling giddy, validated and entitled to our share of a slice of history. Washington plays host to 24 million visitors a year and the city fathers obviously know a lot about crowd management. They did a masterful job of accommodating the million+ who had descended on the city, united by a common purpose. As Inauguration Day unfurled, not only was all of the doom saying about crowds, traffic jams and frigid weather unwarranted, I began to feel like I was living in some sort of Rod Serling time warp. Everything was so damned pleasant, orderly, chaos-free. Even the weather rose to the occasion lending generally blue skies and lightly brisk temperatures.
Armed with fears of interminable delays and fantasies of Japan-style mass transit professional shovers cramming us into subway cars, we boarded the inbound Metro without incident. The promised congestion never even approached rush hour in Manhattan, and people were a whole lot nicer—in fact, faultlessly genial, cherishing the opportunity to share in the nation’s second affirmation of President Obama. Expressions of affection were worn on sleeves, chests, heads and various doodad accessories. (Nothing over-the-top tacky; yet not what one would wear back home. While ours may be a deep blue state, New England Yankees are still much too proper.)
We chatted with three age-contemporary women from Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, respectively, high school classmates serendipitously reunited by the Obama campaign. Each had come to the Inauguration over the objections of her Second-Amendment-toting husband. One quietly lamented that her eight-year-old-son idolizes his father who is teaching him about “subtle” racism. When we de-trained near the Capitol, the threatened long lines were entirely manageable, the only bottleneck occurring as we were funneled through one of twenty-odd airport-like security gates. Everyone, including the officials, was courteous, respectful and tolerant. The significance of the day was bigger than all of us.
On the Mall, those who had arrived hours early—the 7:00 AM TV news had broadcast photographs of crowds already camped out for a 12:30 start time—were amazingly tolerant of late arrivals encroaching on their turf, the people who always seem to be tall, or in the case of women, donning big hats as if to deliberately block the view of others. My favorite hat belonged to a charming PhD educator from Brooklyn, who graciously posed for a photo while engaging me about our respective credentials as if to assure that her likeness was falling into suitable hands.
We were honored to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with compatriots of all ages, ethnicities and domiciles. Hooray for the Democratic party’s inclusivity! Any notion of entitlement we had fancied with our “yellow section” tickets was disabused by our realization that everyone around us was as invested as we were. Our new best friends spoke matter-of-factly of their own campaign volunteerism in areas of the country far less hospitable than steadfastly loyal Massachusetts. Many had traveled longer distances, at considerable personal sacrifice, making do when hotels were filled or unaffordable. One late middle-aged ticketless mother had taken the train from a town near ours at home the night before—sleeping en route—on the good faith that someone would provide her access. She had done the same thing in 2009, landing tickets on both occasions, for the privilege of witnessing history even though she was far too short to see anything, even on the giant jumbotron TV screens. Said lady was returning home directly after the ceremony via another challenging night on Amtrak, her mission accomplished.
The media catchphrase used almost universally to describe the Inauguration was some variation of a “pageant of democracy,” and to a great extent it was. Certainly, the wheels of democracy overcame the adversarial election-year slandering, hyperbole and voter-suppression initiatives, yet as dignitaries were announced and took their places behind the podium it seemed like we were watching semblances of a meritocracy in action. The jumbotrons magnified the spoils of blood sport politics: triaged seating for the ceremony. There was no hiding the jockeying, body language and hollow smiles—role playing in the soap opera we’ve come to associate with Congress. I felt grateful that we were far removed from the ilk who did whatever it took to be positioned in the the most proximate rows for all he world to see.