Jan. 20 in Washington was a day to remember
Published 3:54 pm Saturday, January 24, 2009
One simply wanted to be present. Freezing cold or not, a crowd of 2 million, whatever — solemn warnings about tight security, long lines, traffic jams, cell phones not working. In the end, one wanted to be there on the Mall before the Capitol on Tuesday at noon amid the jubilant throng and see the man take the oath of office — our first genuine Author-President.
So I hitchhiked a ride in the middle of the night on a jet heading to Baltimore and got to the train station at 5 a.m. and already the platform was packed. A lot of black people in parkas and scarves and mittens. It was like “The Apollo Goes to the Arctic.” There were Obama stocking caps, ski caps, skullcaps, and pins with the first family on them, and everyone was beaming, and nobody complained about how cold it was or having to wait in line.
People were being marshaled into waiting areas for each train to D.C., each of us with a Commemorative Train Ticket with a picture of Himself on it — and the marshals, who wore yellow vests, were insistent on us Staying In Our Place, but I just boarded the first train that came through and nobody ever checked my ticket. Big rules, no enforcement.
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I rode with a group of black women who had left Portsmouth, Va., at 1 a.m. to be sure to be there on time. They were heavily bundled and so excited they could hardly speak. And then when the conductor called out “Union Station, Washington,” one of them looked at the others and she burst into tears. And they all cried. I would have, too, if they’d looked at me.
Long lines at Union Station for coffee and restrooms, but everyone was in such a fine mood that waiting was painless, and the same was true of the line to go through security and be scanned and get onto the Capitol grounds. The line was six blocks long, the longest line I have ever stood in, but there is nothing so pleasant as being in a crowd of happy people when you are happy about the same thing they’re happy about. Up above, cops with automatic rifles on parapets and walkways, and down below the mob milled along Louisiana Avenue and the line inched forward and the good will radiated up from the crowd just like in Grant Park on Election Night.
It was more than Democrats feeling their oats or African-Americans celebrating the unimaginable, more than revulsion at the gang of bullheads who held power for too long. It was a huge gasp of pleasure at a new America emerging, a country we all tried to believe in, a nation that is curious and venturesome, more openhearted and public-spirited.
All kinds of people, the slim and sleek, the XXXLs, the heavily insulated, the carefree, and we moved through ranks of souvenir sellers — whatever else he may accomplish, Obama has been a boon to the pin and T-shirt trade — and in our slow trek toward the Capitol, one felt the enormity of the day for the black people around us. I wouldn’t try to express, I simply was grateful to be among it. Old ladies with sore feet hauled themselves along.
The crowd down below the podium had their opinions. There was a profound silence when Mrs. Bush was announced and walked out. People watched the big screen and when Mrs. Obama appeared, there was a roar, and when the Current Occupant and Mr. Cheney came out of the Capitol, a low and heartfelt rumble of booing. Dignified booing. Old black ladies around me tried to shush them — “Don’t do that!” they hissed — but it’s a democracy, and how will those men know how we feel if we don’t tell them?
The band tootled on and there were shouts of “O-ba-ma” and also “Yes we can” (and also “Down in front”) and then he came out and the place went up. That was the first big moment. The second was when he took the oath and said, “so help me, God” and the cannons boomed and you got a big lump in your throat. And the third was afterward.
The invocation was extensive and segued into the Lord’s Prayer, and the music was OK if you like Aaron Copland, and the inaugural speech was good enough, calling on us all to great deeds and sacrifice, details to be announced later. You could hear each oratorical phrase repeated over and over in the series of loudspeakers down the Mall and bouncing off stone facades, a sort of cubist effect. The inaugural poet followed, a sort of filler, with a long windup, a few good phrases in the middle (“someone is trying to make music somewhere … a teacher says, ‘Take out your pencils. Begin.’”), and then it trailed off into some misty thoughts about love. And then a big horn blast of a benediction.
But the great moment came later, as the mob flowed slowly across the grounds. I heard loud cheers behind me and there on the giant screen was the Former Occupant and Mrs. Bush saying goodbye to the Obamas in the parking lot behind the Capitol, the Marine helicopter behind them.
The crowd stopped and stared, a little stunned at the reality of it.
They saw it on a screen in front of the Capitol and it was actually happening on the other side. The Bushes went up the stairs, turned, waved and disappeared into the cabin, and people started to cheer in earnest. When the blades started turning, the cheering got louder, and when the chopper lifted up above the Capitol and we saw it in the sky heading for the airport, a million jubilant people waved and hollered for all they were worth. It was the most genuine, spontaneous, universal moment of the day. It was like watching the ice go out on the river.
Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, “Liberty” (Viking).