UPDATE 2021: On the day the 45th president of the United States was inaugurated in 2017 I wrote about the first inaugural of Barack Obama, a historic day in January of 2009 we witnessed in the largest crowd and the coldest morning and afternoon imaginable. I reflected upon the moment in a peaceful and happy crowd of nearly 2 million people and wondered about what was ahead for then-new President Donald J. Trump, who won’t be attending the first inaugural of Joe Biden today (Jan. 20, 2021). He’s the first sitting president not to attend the inauguration of his successor since Andrew Johnson, who was also impeached. It’s sad also to note that the streets of Washington won’t be filled with joyous people due to the pandemic, but there will be a major military presence to keep the peace in a turbulent time in our history. It’s also very sad to report that we lost Rev. James Brown in 2020 after he suffered a fall at his church in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He was a great and caring man who is sorely missed. He accompanied us on that day. Here’s to better and more peaceful times ahead.
It was cold. It was crowded. It was crazy. It was, in the end, confusing.
But mostly it was cold, and, well, crowded.
Did I mention it was also crazy?
Those are the things I recall most from our trip in January of 2009, for the first presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. It was an occasion steeped with historic implications. He is, after all, the first African-American to become president of the United States. Millions banked on his message of hope and change in a nation already roiled by divisions that started decades ago but had only grown progressively worse. It’s a partisan divide that can probably be traced to the Nixon presidency, the nadir of Watergate and his resignation in disgrace while facing inevitable impeachment from office. The situation later gained fuel from non-stop cable news. The internet and social media poured gas on an already raging fire. And then there was 9/11 and its aftermath, when Americans truly lost track of who they were, who they are and who they will be.
It was all pretty bleak as the presidency of George W. Bush began to wind down. We were still at war on multiple fronts, Osama bin Laden was still at-large and the economy tanked. Millions banked on the promise of Barack Obama to restore hope and prosperity. Obama himself was visible evidence that change could happen in our nation. It was a time of possibilities for many in the nation.
We know how that turned out. The economy got better, as it usually does after a monumental crash – but it’s still not where it should be in terms of good-paying jobs and industrial production. We’re still involved in war in the Middle East. Terrorism has increased at home and abroad and often our enemies are within. Mass shootings became the new normal – even at an elementary school for God sakes. Republicans and Democrats – like the intractable Zaks in the Dr. Seuss story – refused to work together, which created a frustrating standstill on nearly every issue that needs repair in our nation.
And a lot of stuff needs repair, folks — including ourselves.
Perhaps most troubling, Americans continued to turn on each other in response to it all. We no longer tackle our problems together. We tackle our friends, neighbors and virtual strangers instead.
And so it was on Jan. 18, 2009 we headed to the home of our friends Eileen, Brian and their daughter, Pearl, who then lived in Northern Virginia. My spouse Roselee was behind the wheel. With us was our friend from Jacksonville, the Rev. James Brown. Part of our mission was to witness history, but we also wanted to take Rev. Brown, an African-American from a generation for whom the Nov. 4 electoral achievement of Barack Obama seemed a practical impossibility.
It wasn’t easy to get tickets. We petitioned two members of the U.S. House without success before Republican Sen. Richard Burr came through. He gave us three tickets, two to attend and one for Rev. Brown to be in the seated area to witness Obama taking the oath from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
We drove to the D.C. area on Sunday night – got a speeding ticket on the way just past Richmond, Va. – a random thing since we were basically moving at the same speed as the voluminous traffic around us. We arrived late at Eileen and Brian’s home with plans to get up on Monday, Jan. 19 to visit Washington, stop by Burr’s office to pick up the tickets, and do some sightseeing. We knew it was going to be cold on Monday and inauguration day. We had overcoats, scarves, hats, heavy sweaters, corduroy pants and long underwear.
We would need every bit of it.
Monday went without much of a hitch. There were people everywhere on a blustery and overcast day, but it wasn’t an absurd crowd. People could still move around. The train ride in was comfortable. Getting our tickets was a snap. It was fun to walk the halls of the Russell Building and note the offices of John McCain and John Kerry, who were on the first floor near Burr’s office. When we found Burr’s office, his staffers were incredibly nice and helpful – they even had snacks, Lance nabs of course. Afterward, we walked around D.C. and scoped out the massive seating area, confident in the knowledge that things would proceed smoothly the next day.
All in all we went to sleep Monday night certain that inauguration day would at the least be entertaining with the possibility that it could be inspiring. No doubt it would be historic. That was a given.
And, well, it was historic – but it was mostly cold, crowded, crazy and confusing.
It wasn’t the coldest inauguration on record. That distinction goes to Ronald Reagan’s second in 1985 when the noon temperature was 7 degrees and the whole thing was moved indoors. Obama’s was described as unusually cold with a noon temperature of 28 and a wind chill reading of 15. When we left at dawn to board the overstuffed train to Washington it was around 9 degrees.
Not my kind of weather.
While the train was too jammed with passengers to take on many others after it picked us up, things looked passable when we arrived at the station not far from the hub of inauguration activity. Within two blocks we ran into a mass of humanity so vast that moving forward was impossible.
Estimates by D.C. and park police put the crowd at 1.8 million that day. I wouldn’t quibble about it. I had never seen so many people trying to wedge into one place in my life – and don’t expect to again. For a kid who grew up in town where the population is 175 it was a daunting experience. At one point we tried to cross a street to go around the church where the Obamas were attending a special service. No one could move in any direction at one point.
In effect we were paralyzed. We searched for nearly any route that would take us to Rev. Brown’s reserved seat but there appeared to be no possible way to get there. We later found out that 4,000 ticketholders had the same problem and many wound up trapped in an underground tunnel that became known as “The Purple Tunnel of Doom.” We avoided that trap and instead were routed to the National Mall where a sea of people watched the events unfold via TV shown on a massive screen. We stood with thousands near the Washington Monument, and witnessed the oath just the way people did who stayed home and took it in on TV — only they were much warmer.
Navigating our way back to a train station was another adventure, a detour that nearly took us to Arlington, before we found a stop near George Washington University. Another mass of people waited there for a lift into Virginia. I think we finally got back to Eileen and Brian’s house at 3 or 4 p.m. In all I’d say by conservative estimate we walked 15 miles that day.
We were dog tired but pleased to have been a part of it all. The 1.8 million people there — give or take a couple hundred thousand — was just about the happiest group I can remember being around. And while there were 8,000 police officers working security, not a single arrest was made. That has to be some kind of record. Our only regret was failing to get Rev. Brown to his seat. He was good with it, though.
Today, Obama relinquishes the office of president of the United States to a candidate whose campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again.” It’s catchy and it worked with a large enough section of voters to win a national election. It doesn’t say much about future plans or intentions one way or another. It’s an eye of the beholder kind of message.
The 45th president in our nation’s history is being inaugurated today. He’s a candidate no one really saw coming – except on an episode of “The Simpsons” several years ago. That says a lot but not nearly enough. He inspires optimism in those who voted for him and fear among those who did not. He might be the most divisive candidate to take the oath since Richard Nixon in 1969. It won’ t be witnessed by 1.8 million but there will be a solid number of people cheering.
No one can predict the future. Obama ran on a message of hope and change. His supporters believe he succeeded at times and failed when his opponents blindly obstructed him. On the other hand, Obama’s detractors are overjoyed to see him exit the White House and look forward to a new day ahead. They feel that President Donald J. Trump will be their answer. They have their own hopes.
In a way it’s like any other first term inauguration. There’s no road map at all for what’s ahead this time, or any for that matter. Our incoming president is a wholly unpredictable sort. If his words on Twitter or in public speeches are to be taken seriously, then our democracy faces some bumpy times ahead.
I sincerely hope not.