"I Was There!" -- My Experience Of The Inauguration Of President Obama [Part 3]

[ Posted Friday, January 23rd, 2009 – 05:01 UTC ]

[Note: Part 1 and Part 2 ran in a separate article earlier.]

It has been pointed out to me by a commenter to Part 2 of this report that I was being unduly critical of the sound guys, as HBO was the one to screw up both the video/sound sync and the dead microphone for the opening lines to our National Anthem. I concede the point. But the sound had other problems throughout the day as well, so you be the judge.

I left off with the opening of the show, at 10:00 A.M. For approximately the next hour, after the kids' choruses did a great job with their part of the show, the U.S. Marine Corps Band played what I would term "processional music" as the VIPs were seated. First came the garden-variety VIPs, such as Hollywood celebrities (for those making bets with Irish bookies, Dustin Hoffman was the first one we saw). Next, the lower echelons of Washington insiders, and then (in increasing importance, in one of those steeped-in-protocol arcane hierarchies) more and more prominent politicians, past and present. This culminated in the real bigwigs, but I'll get to that in a moment.

During this, we would get (for the minor groups of politicos) on the Jumbotrons, scenes of buses and limos arriving on the other side of the Capitol, then scenes of the personages walking down a connecting hallway, until they were finally announced (lesser ones in groups, such as governors and House and Senate members; more important ones individually) as they appeared on our side of the Capitol, and took their seats. When they entered, much schmoozing amongst the powerful took place before they actually sat down. Well, why not? It's both a historic and a festive event, and rarely are all these people in one place at the same time, so you've got to expect some back-slapping and glad-handling, after all.

I have no problem with any of this. They're human beings as well as being powerful politicians, and they should be allowed to have a good time as much as the rest of us.

But the problem, sadly, was the sound. Remember, throughout this entire process (which lasted until things really got rolling around 11:15), the Marine Corps Band was playing. But here is a sequence which we got from the Jumbotrons, over and over again.

First, the band plays for a minute or two. Next, a bus is spotted entering the Capitol grounds. The music is immediately replaced with (I'm not kidding) amplified sounds of the bus engines. Squeaking brakes, and then people tromping down the steps. Another minute of music, then a shot of everyone walking down the corridors to get to the other side of the Capitol. The band music was once again dialed down to zero, while were heard (again, I am not making this up) the sound of clicking shoes as they walked down the hallway. Not, as might have actually worked, a nice mix of band music in the background with clicking shoes over it, just clicking shoes. They must have had a parabolic microphone guy recording all this for posterity, which was then amplified at full blast to the millions watching on the Mall. With the lovely band music completely gone.

But the really embarassing thing was that we got not only the sound of their shoes, but (especially when they appeared on our side of the Capitol) also their inane greetings to one another. "Hey, Charlie! How ya doin'? How's the wife and kids? Great to see ya!"

Once again, I must state: you simply can't make this stuff up. Every time anyone entered, we heard, at full volume, their chit-chat as they got seated. Once seated, as filler (before the next "sounds of the bus arriving" would start the loop over again), we got snatches of what the band was actually playing.

This is pathetic on two levels. First, is there nobody competent enough to run a soundboard? If you must have this stuff, can't we have at least heard the music in the background?!? You can actually "mix" these two sound channels together, you know. This technology has only been around for... oh, I don't know... over half a century. I mean, sheesh. Really, guys, any sci-fi geek from an average suburban high school's Audio/Visual department could have done a better job that this.

And secondly, why should we hear this stuff in the first place? I consider this sort of thing private conversation, and not something to be blasted out at full volume to two million live viewers.

Maybe I'm just some sort of privacy nut. But I could have done without the parabolic microphone entirely. These things were invented so that we could hear quarterbacks grunt and football players slam together, not to hear "thanks for delivering Indiana!" (I swear, I heard someone say this). But then maybe I'm just getting cranky in my old age, since I also think this sort of thing should be banned from a lot of sports as well. I do not need to hear what some teenage ice skater or gymnast says to her coach right after she performs, because that sort of thing should be private conversation and hence off limits!

Ahem. OK, I have to focus here and get back to the good parts of the day. You'll have to forgive me, I just stepped off a nine-hour plane ride (with too many stops in too many places) and a rainy drive home on a mountain road, so my nerves are a little on edge.

So I'll say something nice instead. There was one touching moment from the parabolic mikes. Ex-President George Herbert Walker Bush, when entering, addressed the honor guard of soldiers presenting arms inside the Capitol's hallways with a hearty "Looking good, guys!" I don't agree with much the man did, but I have to say it was a very humanizing moment for him. He took the time to compliment the guys that most of these people treated as stage props, and I applaud him for doing so.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. This procession of muckety-mucks took over an hour, remember, and the crowd had nothing else to do during this time than to register the snappiest of public opinion polls. We were armed (thanks to the scouts) with flags, and were not afraid to use them together with our voices in the purest example of the concept of vox populi -- "the voice of the people" -- which is the bedrock below the foundation of the entire concept of a public opinion poll. Now, granted, it was a heavily Democratic audience, so it wasn't exactly a scientific example representative of the country at large or anything, but still... it was fun.

An image would appear on the big screens. Favorites of the crowd would get big cheers, and much flag-waving. Not-so-favorites (cough, cough... every Republican... cough) would get no cheers, and no flags. Particularly intense crowd reactions were saved for the worst of the worst and the best of the best. The biggest early glorious pandemonium happened when Senator Ted Kennedy appeared. The biggest early chorus of boos came when Newt Gingrich appeared.

Call us petty if you will, but hey, it was that kind of crowd. And we were finally getting to participate after shivering for hours, so you will just have to excuse us. Here's a little-known fact: flag-waving warms you up. Literally. Plus, it was fun. We've been through two elections where the Democrats absolutely trounced the Republican Party, and it was time to make sure everyone knew about it. Make a joyful noise, indeed. Thank you Howard Dean (Dean got a gigantic round of applause when he appeared, and he fully deserved every hand-clap).

Joe Lieberman got booed. I just wanted to say that. One of those boos may possibly have been mine, but my notes from that point are sketchy, so we'll never know. Ahem.

The culmination of this parade of notables was the former presidents' entry. Jimmy Carter got a big warm reception from the crowd. George H.W. Bush got polite (but unenthusiastic) applause. Bill and Hillary Clinton got an enormous cheer. Bill actually looked a bit under the weather (perhaps he was up late partying, his face did look kind of hangover-ish). Hillary was shining, though, and the crowd gave their love to both of them.

Next came the family members of the principals of the main event. The Biden family was cheered, but the place exploded in adulation when Michelle, or Sasha, and Malia Obama appeared on the screen.

This brings up a point which must have been a bit disjointed from the point of view of those on the VIP stage. Remember, we were seeing entries starting from the other side of the Capitol on our Jumbotron screens. So it must have been a bit mystifying to hear large rounds of cheering to those who had already been seated, as they had no Jumbotron to see what we were seeing. But then, they had the best seats in the whole place, so it's hard to feel too sorry for them.

Then the four people this entire show was for entered. Along with some Senators and Representatives important enough to shoehorn themselves into the biggest introductions of the day.

Bush and Cheney appeared. Boos were rampant. We later were informed by text message from the husband of one of our intrepid band of spectators (who drove us to the Metro -- thanks Chris! -- and then watched the show on television) that the television mikes were picking up not just heavy booing, but also a spontaneous chant of "na-na-na-na, hey-hey, good-bye!" Hubby informed us that even liberal newscasters were saying how brutal it must have been for Bush, and that such impropriety was perhaps uncalled for.

To which I have to respond: vox populi, baby. Literally and figuratively. In the final moments of George W. Bush's presidency, let history record that two million of us finally shouted loud enough to get through his infamous "bubble," and that we let him know what the country really thought of him.

In other words, as they say in Texas: tough beans.

Since we're being negative here again, I have to bring something up. You may have noticed that I have concentrated quite a bit on the Jumbotron images, rather than what I actually saw. There's a reason for this. RIGHT IN FRONT of both the entranceway to the porch the distinguished audience was sitting on, and the area where the actual swearing-in would happen was an ENORMOUS television camera tower. That's right, the view of two million people on the Mall was blocked by a TV stand. They could have built this tower about ten or twenty feet lower and the TV shots would have been almost identical (from a slightly lower angle), and we all would have been able to see. The binoculars I brought along were made worthless by this, in other words. So we mostly paid attention to the Jumbotrons, since we couldn't really see what was going on.

But, to temper my remarks, this may have been on purpose. It may have been a none-too-subtle security measure. If you can't see Obama, you can't aim at him, in other words. If this was indeed the case, then I should probably withdraw my criticism. But the Secret Service has "secret" in its name for a reason, so we'll likely never know. As it should be, I guess. But still, after lugging the binocs, it was a little disappointing.

Which allows a segué here to Tinfoil-hat-land, and a conspiracy theory so old and venerated it was actually in the high school history book I read as a child. I kid you not. Its proper name is the "Curse of Tecumseh" (you can read about it either at wikipedia or, depending on what point of view you'd like to assign it, historical analysis or urban myth), but everyone usually refers to it as the "zero year curse." Every United States president elected in a year ending with a zero from 1840 to 1960 was either assassinated or otherwise managed to die in office. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, broke this chain of events. But Reagan did indeed take a bullet, which missed his heart by an inch. And now, George W. Bush has survived his entire eight years in office. Meaning that the "curse" (if ever there was one) has now been officially broken. My favorite counter-conspiracy theory: Reagan broke the curse because he was the anti-Christ, as evidenced by his name (count the characters): Ronald (6) Wilson (6) Reagan (6). In other words, Satanic black magic trumps Indian curses.

How the heck did I get here? We were at the Inauguration, last I recall, and Joe Biden and Barack Obama were just about to enter. If the cheers had been loud up to this point when Democratic favorites appeared on screen, they became absolutely deafening now. I have to hand it to the Boy and Girl Scouts, whoever they contracted with to provide flags did a good job, because they were stapled onto our little flagsticks firmly enough to survive the tornado of flag-waving (which was accompanied by hurricane-level cheering) when Obama made his way onto center stage.

Two million people did not get up at three in the morning and then almost freeze to death waiting a further seven hours to be restrained at this point. We were in the open air -- and therefore had no roof over our heads -- but if there had been one, we would have torn the sucker off at this point.

Can we almost double the previous record for an Inaugural crowd? Yes we can! Can we let our man know how we feel about what he's about to do? YES WE CAN!!!

Obama's face was inscrutable as he appeared. One could only wonder what thoughts were running through his head at this moment in time. I would seriously hate to play poker with this guy, because he wasn't giving anything away by his expression. It was emotionally overwhelming enough to be one of a myriad of voices cheering and crying at this point in history, and I simply cannot conceive of what it was like being on the receiving end of it, right before the most important moment in your entire life.


[Note: I'm only up to about 11:30 A.M. here, but this is just getting impossibly long to finish tonight. I remind the faithful reader that I have been on an airplane and crossed the continent today, as well as writing this afterwards. So it's looking like there will be both a Part 4 (tomorrow's Friday Talking Points, in which I will address Barack Obama's speech, and also a Part 5, which will cover the rest of the ceremony as well as the aftermath, which may run this weekend in a Special Report (since I normally don't write on the weekends). In any case, I am determined to fulfill my promise to provide you, the reader, with a full and complete report of my experiences. And while one commenter has compared (in general) my long-windedness with the New Yorker magazine's 50,000-word articles (cough, cough... LizM... cough), this is indeed one week where I will prove such comparisons correct. But admit it to yourself, if you found it boring, you wouldn't have made it to this note at the end, would you have? Hmmm?]


-- Chris Weigant


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