My Final Inaugural Report -- The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

[ Posted Sunday, January 25th, 2009 – 22:32 UTC ]

"It was a the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Too trite? How about: "We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America" (from Obama himself)? Maybe that's pretentious of me. OK, I've got it, let's use one last cowboy metaphor as a final nod to the Bush years: Inauguration Day, 2009 had the good, the bad and the ugly.

Here's a quick photo summary:


The good

The swearing-in ceremony itself, and the opening acts which proceeded it were the best thing, capped by Barack Obama's oath of office.



The bad

Poor planning by the Presidential Inaugural Committee led to utter chaos, most prominently (but assuredly not limited to) the nightmare of the purple ticket holders, in the 3rd Street I-395 tunnel.



The ugly

With no evidence of any sort of master plan for crowd control, scenes like the one above (at 7th Street and Independence Avenue) were all too common, when they could have easily been avoided by telling the crowd what to do.


I've been telling my experiences of Inauguration Day all week. When I started, I was a bit concerned that it would sound too negative and be seen as nit-picky. But now the backlash against the handling of crowd control has gotten big enough to warrant congressional investigation, so I feel much better that I have told my tale without glossing over the annoying bits.

Here are links to my whole week's worth of columns, for those who want to read what it was like to physically be present to witness this historic event:

Sunday -- "As I Went Walking That Ribbon Of Highway"
Monday -- "The Day Before The Big Day"
Tuesday -- "Twenty-One Howitzer Salute"
Wednesday -- "'I Was There!' -- My Experience Of The Inauguration Of President Obama [Parts 1 & 2]"
Thursday -- "'I Was There!' -- My Experience Of The Inauguration Of President Obama [Part 3]"
Friday -- Friday Talking Points [62] -- Obama's Inaugural Speech
Saturday -- My Inauguration Photos

I was going to finish this up yesterday, but then got wrapped up in posting my photos of the day, and ran out of time. If you'd like to actually see what the day was like (complete with a map of where I was when), check the last link out.

But enough of this shameless plugging of my columns. Let's get on with the final report of Inauguration Day. We had gotten, timewise, up to the actual swearing-in ceremony.

Dianne Feinstein was to Obama's swearing-in what Ryan Seacrest is to American Idol -- she was on stage a lot, but you kind of wondered why. Since she was the chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, she played emcee to the entire event, and got to announce everyone. Even this could not ruin the day, however, so I won't mention her again. Just picture her bobbing up and down between each of the acts, as I continue.

The first person to speak was the notorious Rick Warren. The crowd, I have to say, seemed unaware or uncaring of the controversy over letting him speak. Now, I'm not an expert on religious speech, but I found Warren's speech to be about average for this sort of thing. Lots of talk of humility for being chosen, lots of "let's all work together" sort of stuff. Picture Reverend Lovejoy of The Simpsons giving an introductory blessing, and you're pretty close. Speaking of Reverend Lovejoy, Warren did get a laugh out of the crowd when pronouncing "Sasha" and "Malia," since he could not resist the urge to use his "preacher" accent, and added one or two syllables to each name in that drawn-out way religious men have of talking that Lovejoy parodies so well. We in the crowd couldn't help it, and erupted in a mass giggle, which we soon suppressed.

Next up was Aretha Franklin singing "My Country 'Tis Of Thee." What is it with all the hat-haters out there? The first thing I noticed was her hat. I turned to my wife and said, "That's some hat!" And now I find out people are making fun of the hat? Get a grip, people. Her hat was fabulous (to get all fashion-y here), and although most women couldn't have worn it without looking at least a little bit silly, Aretha Franklin pulled it off without a hitch. Her hat's statement was: "I am Aretha Franklin's hat, and you better get used to me -- because she looks better wearing me than any woman in Washington since Jacqueline Kennedy and her pillboxes. You got a problem with that?" Her hat spoke to me, in other words. Anyone who didn't hear this message just wasn't listening hard enough.

Speaking of listening, Aretha did a wonderful job of "My Country 'Tis Of Thee," as you would expect from such a talented woman. Sweet land of liberty, indeed!

I have to say, at this point, that either they built quite a bit of padding into the schedule or they sped things up quite a bit during this whole phase, because while Obama was supposed to appear (according to the media handout) at 11:25 A.M., they were running quite a bit late -- but then managed to almost catch up to their schedule for the swearing-in part.

Because, next-up was Associate Justice Stevens swearing in Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. as our new Vice President of the United States of America. From what I saw, Stevens had the oath written down in front of him, and they managed to get through it just fine. Maybe he should have had a word with Roberts... but then, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Because we had one final musical interlude, the stunning quartet of Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, Gabriela Montero, and Itzhak Perlman, playing the John Williams arrangement "Air and Simple Gifts" (which is a rewrite of a song known to many as "It's a Gift to be Simple"). It was lovely, and a rare treat to see such virtuosos play together.

Of course, this generated a mini-scandal of its own soon after, when it was learned that what was piped out over the loudspeakers was pre-recorded a few days earlier when they were practicing for the big event. I have to say, this bothers me not at all. I have no idea what it would be like to try and keep a fragile violin (to say nothing of a piano) in tune in subfreezing temperatures, and would rather have heard a perfectly-played version they laid down earlier than a cacophony of out-of-tune instruments. The musicians were playing, you could see them. The music they made was probably not audible beyond the first few rows of spectators near them, but I bet if you asked any one of them they would tell you that they were playing, and music was being performed. They just chose to pipe to the rest of the crowd a perfect version, to avoid embarrassment.

On the scale of Washington scandals, this rates about a negative two, in other words.

Soon after, the Main Event began with the introduction of Chief Justice John Roberts and Barack Obama. The most touching thing about this moment was an aide setting down a box for the Obama girls to stand on, and the microphone clearing picking up Obama saying "that's for you to stand on, honey" to his kids. This guaranteed their beaming faces would be visible to all over the microphones, as they stood between Roberts and their parents for the best seat in the house to witness the history their daddy was about to make.

And then Roberts blew it. All he had to say was 35 words in the right order. But Chief Justice John Roberts' attempt at swearing in Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America did not go smoothly. Roberts, perhaps too vain to be seen reading the words off a piece of paper (or perhaps too shortsighted to think of it beforehand), mangled the words. Obama tried to give him a chance to start over, Roberts got tongue-tied, and then Obama blew the words too.

Stop the presses! They're actually human beings and they made a mistake!

Seriously, the crowd was so high on patriotic Obama fever at the time that we barely noticed. We grinned to each other and said, "Wow, didn't they practice?" but then quickly turned our attention back to the rest of the oath. The moment it was done, pandemonium erupted from two million throats.

We did it!

Change we can believe in!

We have overcome!

It was one of the most passionate moments I have ever witnessed. The sheer joy, the tears streaming down people's cheeks, the release of people who had been waiting in bone-chilling cold for eight hours -- it was truly overwhelming.

There were trumpet flourishes, and a 21-gun salute performed with field artillery. As I wrote on the day itself, you could barely hear the howitzers over the crowd's noise.

That is one noisy crowd, by any measure. Even standing on a milkcrate, the view of the Capitol was blotted out by madly waving mini-flags.

It took a while for us to calm down, but eventually we got quiet enough for Obama to address the nation for the first time as President Obama. I thought it was a great speech, personally, and wrote Friday about the most memorable bits of it. I've heard some whining from inside-the-Beltway types since about the speech, but they haven't really adjusted to the fact that Obama is now leading the country and not campaigning anymore. Give them time, they'll get used to it.

President Obama spoke under the statue of Liberty (which tops the Capitol's dome). She is depicted as being pregnant, because Liberty is always ready to give birth. He spoke in front of a backdrop of our first flag, our current flag, and the 21-star flag that only lasted for one year (1819-1820) after Illinois joined the Union. The symbolism in Washington can be overwhelming at times, but Obama lived up to it all admirably.

Over and over, the speech hit the same basic theme: It's a new day. The Bush years are over. We will be doing things differently now. All Americans and the entire world should know: change has come to Washington. Change for the better.

Now, I have no way of knowing what was going out over the airwaves from the media at this point, but every so often during the speech the Jumbotrons would cut away to Ex-President Bush. And boy, did he look like he was sucking a bitter lemon. Seriously, the guy looked like he was ready to chew nails. First the crowd boos his entry, and now he is forced to sit through twenty minutes of hearing how he has destroyed the country -- in great detail -- and how we need an almost superhuman effort to recover from the many many ways in which he has absolutely and miserably failed. Obama even got downright Led Zeppelin-esque with the line "the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break," which pointed out the worst of the worst of Bush's failures, in New Orleans.

I guess, come to think of it, I'd look a little annoyed too, if I were Bush. He's lived in his "bubble" so long that he hasn't heard the view of the "reality-based" very often like this.

Obama's speech began its rousing finish with the line about how 60 years ago black men couldn't even eat in Washington restaurants, and how far we have come as a country. And as for the pundits who didn't like the speech, I and two million of my closest friends beg to disagree. Because the crowd loved it.

In what I would say the only scheduling misstep in the entire event, Obama was followed by poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read a very nice poem. But Obama's a hard act to follow, as they say in show biz. So her poem didn't quite get the attention it deserved, as the crowd was already packing up and streaming for the exits.

The Reverend Joseph Lowery closed out the ceremony with a benediction. While he started slow (following Obama onstage must truly be a humbling thing to do), he had a rousing ending:

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around... when yellow will be mellow... when the red man can get ahead, man... and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen.

This, too, was later criticized (for "telling white people what to do" if you can believe that). All I know is that the crowd gave him a hearty "Amen!" at the end of it.

Getting off the Mall after the event was over was a lot easier than getting on, I have to say. We trekked south, then cut over to the (now infamous) 3rd Street tunnel, and walked the length of it under the Capitol to get to the place we had reservations for lunch. People were all over the streets, going hither and yon, all with smiles on their faces.

Because every single one of them, for the rest of their lives, will be able to proudly say those three little words whenever the subject of Barack Obama's Inauguration comes up:

"I was there."

And that made everything worth it, in the end.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


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