January 21, 2009

Reporter's Notebook: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Inauguration

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O’Toole caught the ceremony as part of the massive crowd on the National Mall.

When the alarm buzzed at 7 a.m. yesterday, thousands upon thousands of people had already been standing for hours in the morning chill on the National Mall. With every last minute of warmth I relished, thousands more were pouring in to witness history — the inauguration of President Barack Obama. No better motivation to get out of bed.
The air of anticipation was palpable days before the inauguration — it was the topic of every conversation. Not often spoken were the anxieties that came along with it. The brave ones who planned to join the over-a-million throng of people exchanged facts about the presidential limousine’s action-movie ability to survive a rocket launched grenade, or “non-descript” boxes subtly located on the Mall to detect deadly strains of airborne anthrax. As foolish as it felt, even I made sure to call my parents.
At 8:30 a.m., as I biked along the Capitol Crescent Trail towards Georgetown, the day was clear and bitingly cold, but the sun shone off of the Potomac, frozen like sheets of glass. Pedestrians and riders alike, bundled up so they could hardly see the road, rang bells and honked horns, or just called out to each other, occasionally chanting “Obama!” We navigated together towards downtown D.C.
Crossing over from Georgetown, we started to see the first signs. The sidewalks were too busy to bike; we braved the road. But the streets were quiet. It was almost eerie — our silent ride across the wide, dead avenues of an abandoned city, serenaded only by distant siren wails.
At 17th and K, within eight blocks of the National Mall, we left our bikes behind at the “America Bikes” valet, a free service provided for the first 1,400 bikes.
Looking towards the Mall, the Washington Monument rose out of an unending mass on the horizon. As we walked closer, the mass differentiated itself into a parade of dark coats, peppered by brightly colored hats and scarves and then people. They stretched across the street, sidewalk-to-sidewalk and shoulder-to-shoulder, and extended beyond visual comprehension.
The crowd swallowed us within seconds, and we were swept along. The path was determined by intimidating but joking National Guardsmen. No one pushed, no one yelled. Strangers struck up conversations about shared adventures “getting here.” A young man with heavy gold chains helped an elderly woman in a likely homemade Obama sweater over a cement barrier wall, and as the crowd grew more dense others shouted back warnings of “Ambulance coming!” and “Curb, watch your step.” In the air was a surprisingly low, calming buzz of conversations. We walked as one with a crowd of thousands of people, filling us with an inevitable sense of camaraderie. It was our March on Washington.
The crowds parted only for venders selling every imaginable Obama merchandise — t-shirts, hand warmers, posters, bejeweled hats and, of course, American flags. Sales pitches were more varied, from “Get your Obama, Palin, and McCain condoms!” in the “Election Erection” set, a tempting three for $10 only — to Obama puppets (“Look girls, you can finally take him home with you!”) But hardly a person in the crowd came without presidential paraphernalia already — there was a surprising amount on formal dresses. Picture Obama pins on floor-length fur coats.
When 18th opened up to the Mall, we realized the sea of spectators was only a fraction. We walked with the later arrivals toward the slope of the Washington Monument for its higher-ground viewing point. Sidling around lounging persons, blanket breakfast picnics and photo opportunities, we settled in at the center of the lawn in front of the famous stone obelisk, facing the Capitol, where we had a good view of two jumbo screens, as various dignitaries were being introduced.
Nine-year-old Kathleen Tiernan of North Carolina, who had been on the Mall near the Washington Monument since 7:30 a.m. said she had learned “a little bit” about the soon-to-be 44th president at school.
“I like Barack,” she said, apparently on first name basis with Obama.
Her wants for an Obama presidency were simple.
“I want for this country to be a more peaceful place,” she said, without hesitation.
Monique Dubois, standing in a sunny spot on the slope, is originally from Belgium, but has lived in the U.S. for 30 years as an American citizen. She brought her son John, a historian specializing in slavery.
Dubois said she had no words of wisdom for the new president.
“No, no, I’m respectful,” she said, in only slightly accented English. “He is a very clever man. There’s been a lot of damage done to the country … times will be hard, but everyone hopes [Obama’s agenda] will work.”
Genger Charles ’04 (out of a crowd of more than a million, I found a Cornellian) works in D.C. as a government lawyer. She stood on the lawn with a group of friends as dignitaries were introduced.
“I’ve lived in the city five years now, and I’ve never seen it so cohesive. People are happy, jovial,” she said. “How could anyone miss this?”
Current estimates put the crowd at nearly two million people. It looked like a carpet covering the Mall from the monument to the majestic Capitol dome; a mosaic of living, breathing, waiting people. The stuff of postcards, the stuff of history.
The relative respectful silence and cheerful cooperation of such a mob was surprising. Shouts of excitement rose in waves at the announcement and arrival of popular figures — President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Jimmy Carter. The large screens caught canny candids of Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) and President Bush, whose entrance — along with his father’s — was met either by grim-lipped silence or loud boos.
The wait was not long, and a church-like hush overcame the crowd at about noon. Armed with a pen, gaudy notepad and tape recorder, moving though the crowd, I felt as if I were almost desecrating something sacred. The flags of a million waved wildly for the first family and the ground seemed to shake when first lady Michelle Obama descended the red-carpeted steps from the halls of Congress, bright in her chartreuse suit. At the sight of President Obama, the crowd exhaled in a roar so loud that I could not hear my own voice joining it. The vigorous clapping of over two million gloved and numb hands sounded like thunder.
Somehow, despite the noise, through the shockwaves of celebration and affirmation, it was, above all, a quieting experience. I gave in trying to capture it and let the experience wash over me. Objective journalism has no words for such a force — patriotism.
Zach Murray ’11, involved in Black Students United, attended the inauguration with the University sponsored trip. He arrived at 4:30 a.m. for a spot just behind the ticketed area.
“[T]o have been a part of it, and to say that I was there with the millions of people who showed up and wanted to be touched by it,” Murray reflected on the bus back to Ithaca,“[it’s] something I’ll remember for a long time.”

Related Content:
View all of The Sun’s inauguration coverage.