Originally, the plan was to attend inauguration with Jeremy Cowart and have a bit of a photo contest. Jeremy and I actually used the same camera, and even the same lens, and on our first day, shooting the exact same shot of the capitol dome, his LCD screen revealed a whole different planet. After that I hardly took my camera anywhere. So, a slight adjustment to the contest. I’ll just print the winning photos, which are his, and offer some literary snapshots.
A couple days before Inauguration I was to speak in chapel at Georgetown. We showed early and walked along M street to grab lunch. While there were crowds along M, it wasn’t too bad. Many had headed down to the mall where U2, Bruce Sprinsteen and others were putting on a free concert. We stepped into a gallery where a dozen or so artists were displaying their campaign-inspired work. Jeremy ran into his friend Herb Williams whose work is created entirely of crayons, not drawn with crayons, but actually created by laying crayons side by side next to each other or pointed out toward the viewer.
Shepherd Fairey was also present, mostly doing interviews for the press. Shepherd became known through his Obey campaign, posters on subways in New York that spread across the country. He is the artist who created that blue and red image of Obama that we see everywhere these days.
The next morning, we moved into D.C. Our friend Bob Goff loaned us his house across the street from the Supreme Court, so on the night before inauguration we were able to take the subway down to China town. Bridges were to be closed at 4 A.M. so hundreds of thousands of people had come into the city to sleep on friends floors. All the hotels in D.C. were filled, of course, and on Monday night everybody was out in the streets. It was not a party atmosphere, exactly, but there was joy. The streets were lined with vendors selling Obama hats, pins, t-shirts and even Barack Obama body oil. He was on the cover of every magazine, every newspaper and even the ticket stub for the metro. It was not a Messianic treatment. To think that would be to misunderstand the inaugural event in light of the civil rights movement. For so many African American’s, inauguration was more an affirmation that they’d truly been set free, something I came to realize over the next couple days, something, because of the color of my skin, I could only understand from the perspective of a journalist. And yet you could feel the moment happening around you all the same.
That night we walked around the Capitol till well after midnight. But by then the place was eerily quiet. If there were 2-million people coming to inauguration, they were nowhere to be found around the capitol the night before`. That said, it was 20 degrees out there, and I found myself wondering why we were out in the first place.
A few hours later my alarm went off. We had tickets to inauguration, but they were general admission, so it meant getting up early to stand in line for a good spot on the mall. Our tickets were standing tickets, directly behind the chairs on the west side of the capitol. I knocked on Jeremy’s door then put on several layers and we headed out toward our check point. Even at 5 A.M. the streets were crowded with people. Police had blocked the streets around the Supreme Court and every other corner had light towers with generators humming and blowing exhaust into the cold. Streams of people were coming out of their homes in the dead of night, heading toward various gates and check points. I whispered a prayer of gratitude for Bob and Maria Goff, whose house was only five blocks from our gate.
And then we stood. We stood for about three hours there at the gate, slowly sensing the light grow on the horizon, then break and climb through the stubby buildings of the D.C. skyline. And hundreds of people came behind us, then thousands, then what seemed like hundreds of thousands. Jeremy and I were ten feet from an entry gate and the line behind us went, perhaps, three miles around corners, across streets and back toward the White House. It was very cold. My fingers were so numb I couldn’t twitter. (Did I just type that?) People in line started singing songs, then doing sets of jumping jacks (sets of 44). And again there was a strong feeling of joy. It was a delightful metaphor for heaven, I think, waiting at a gate with every nationality, singing, sensing a change, hoping in a moment things might be different.
The guards finally opened our gate and after going through security we ran to our spots along the fence. Jeremy and I got the exact spot we had wanted to stand, with a clear view of the podium and capitol behind it. And again, we stood. For three more hours, in the cold.
Two images stay in my mind from the hours along the fence. The first was when I turned around to look down the mall toward the Washington Monument into the mass of people and noticed, on the statues directly behind us, dozens of people perched on the shoulders of the statues, sitting on the horses like riders, bundled in their coats. And the second image is of an African-American man standing about ten feet down the fence from me, every so often a tear running down his cheek. He was joyful and cold, rarely not smiling, and he kept ringing his hands together to keep them warm, looking toward the stage. He looked vaguely familiar to me, as though we’d met before. Every time I looked over he was smiling, joking with the people around him, and I wished I could know what he was thinking and feeling.
Rick Warren gave the opening prayer, and when he was introduced there was a spattering of murmur in negative tones. But these people weren’t familiar with Rick Warren. And when he was done praying there was an enormous applause, and I swore I heard some of those same critical voices enthusiastically saying “He did alright.” and “Amen.” I thought Rick’s prayer was well written and well spoken.
I expected a loud applause after the swearing in, but it wasn’t that way. The crowd wanted to hear every word, and so the applause ended shortly, perhaps because the cannon fire going off behind us was startling. The band played, and President Obama came to the podium.
His speech was terrific but it wasn’t an exceptional moment in the day. I noticed during the campaign that when it came time for the crowd to expect a rousing speech, he would soften it as though to remind us that work, not words, would make us better. As a writer I noticed he left out hook lines that might be repeated. He had used such lines in the campaign such as yes we can, which he retired beautifully in Grant Park. He stated “we the people” at one point in his address and I thought he might come back to that line again and again, but he left it behind him and it struck me that it had more power that way. He did not give a speech. He talked to us.
But it was the day that mattered more than the man. Somehow the crowd knew that. It was as though we were all saying how proud we were of ourselves, and how glad we were that Barack Obama could represent that pride with such dignity and grace. And we were certainly proud that he was our President, and our hope went back on him as strong as he had placed it on us the previous twenty-four months.
It took about an hour to walk the two blocks back to Bob’s house. We moved inches at a time. Still, nobody was complaining. We just stood, nudged forward, and stood. President Bush’ helicopter flew right over our heads and we watched it fly low along the mall back toward the Washington Monument.
We went back to the house and took naps before putting on Tuxedo’s to head to the Mid-Atlantic Inaugural Ball.
Having never attended a ball, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but essentially it was a five-thousand person party for folks who’d paid lots of money to attend in order to see the President. Not the makings of a good party, if you ask me. And yet it was. Joe and Jill came and Joe gave a little speech, then the Vice President danced with his wife, and then Wyclef Jean had us all dancing with our coats swinging over our heads. We ate cheap pasta and made “who cares what you think of me” small talk for hours with complete strangers. It was better than the prom, honestly. The only negative of the night involved what I thought was the worst “Grateful Dead Cover Band” in the history of man until, about a half hour into their set I realized they were not a cover band. They were The Grateful Dead. We miss you, Jerry. But we love the tribute ice cream.
And about an hour later the President arrived with the First Lady. After the Marine Band set up on stage, he came out to Hail to the Chief and gave a short speech about individual responsibility. And then he and Michelle danced.
After the President left the room, so did everybody else. We mooed like cattle in coat check for another hour, then finally headed back to the house. It was a twenty-hour day, most of it spent standing in the cold. And we still had one more event.
President Obama’s first event in office was to attend the Presidential Inaugural Prayer service in The National Cathedral. The service dates back more than two-hundred years and aims to ground our leader in faith, grace and direction. Several hundred clergy and heads of state made their way into the cathedral and sat reflectively listening to an ensemble and reading through the reflections in our programs. Senator John McCain sat quietly as Bill and Hillary Clinton entered the cathedral, followed by Vice President Biden and Jill Biden. The President entered in a thoughtful stride, walking down a side aisle with his wife. They crossed the front of the stage and took their seats next to the Vice President. Andy Stanley said a prayer, several songs were sung including a solo of Amazing Grace by Dr. Wintley Phipps that could only be described as stirring.
Then Dr. Sharon Watkins delivered a bold sermon, charging the President to feed his own good nature as he leads the nation. She was pointed, authoritarian and encouraging, and did not pander to the power in the room.
When the service was over, the President and first lady left before the congregation, but if you wanted you could walk the few paces to shake his hand. I was impressed that the service maintained an appropriate reverence to God in the presence of such worldly power. Barack Obama seemed to be deferring to that authority even as he slowly left the room, shaking hands and giving hugs to the clergy he was familiar with.
I talked with Andy Stanley for a moment after the service. He had been sitting on stage, facing the President. He said the most powerful moment came during Dr. Phipps solo of Amazing Grace. He said the Presdient, who did look tired from the previous night, came into himself at the beginning of the song. Andy said it was as though the song were moving into his chest, and he were taking it in with all the comfort it had been intended to deliver, both by it’s author, and by the God whose grace the song referenced.
After the service, I dropped Jeremy off at the airport then returned the rental car and joined the masses at Washington Dulles. Needless to say I was exhausted. There was a half hour line at the ticket counter, another half-hour line at security and another to get to our terminal. I stopped at a Wendy’s to grab a burger and happened to notice a familiar figure sitting at a table in the restaurant. It was the man who had stood ten feet from me at inauguration, the man with all the emotion on his face. There was only one open seat in the restaurant and it was at his table so I went over and asked if I could sit with him. He was pleasant, even though he had been reading the paper, and motioned toward the empty chair. I told him I had stood next to him at inauguration, and he seemed surprised at that, even asking what section I was in. “Well I’ll be.” He said. “Quite a morning, wasn’t it?” He introduced himself as Windell.
I told him I noticed him during the ceremony, and asked what he had been feeling. Wendell said he was thinking about the great statement our democracy had made that morning, and he said this rather impersonally. But then he seemed to open up a bit, to sit more comfortably as though it were okay to tell the whole truth to a stranger. He told me he was thinking about Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader who was murdered by a member of the Klu Klux Klan within minutes of John F. Kennedy’s speech on Civil Rights. Wendell also said he was thinking of Rosa Parks, and of his grandfather who was narrowly saved from a lynching.
Then Wendell said something I thought might have captured the emotion of nearly 1-million African Americans on the Capitol Mall the previous morning.
“Don, did you stay for the National Anthem, after the poem, after the prayer?”
“I did.” I told him.
“You know what, man. I’ve always thought I was patriotic. I mean I have flags and love America and all that. But me and this lady next to me, we just stood there and cried, you know, cause all my life, and I realized it at that moment, but all my life the National Anthem had been their anthem. But it’s not their anthem anymore. It’s ours. It’s our anthem. It’s mine and yours.” And even then Wendell started to choke up. Wendell had been at the DNC in Denver, and at Grant Park in what he called “The Trifecta” and seemed to glow in pride at what his country had done the previous year. He wrote down his e-mail address as they were calling him for his flight to New Orleans. He had talked so long he nearly missed the plane. He asked to keep in touch.
So it was that kind of event. I left out a lot of description because it didn’t seem to fit. We still live in a post-fallen world, but every once in a while you get a glimpse of the good we are capable of. I don’t think anybody in America thinks our troubles are over. And if they think Barack Obama is going to fix our problems, freeing us from the necessity of hard work, then they haven’t been listening to Barack Obama.
Martin Luther King’s last sermon was in The National Cathedral 40-years and a week before Barack Obama would sit on the front row as the first African-American President. When Robert Kennedy was asked, 40-years ago, how long it would take before we had a black president, he answered 40 years.
It was good to be there. It was the hope and change we were promised. Now I suppose we all get back to work.
Thanks for coming with us.
* Wendell was familiar to me because, it turned out, he was Wendell Pierce who plays Detective Bunk on HBO’s The Wire.
* You can see some shots of Jeremy’s photoshoot of me from the week at Jeremy’s blog. One of the reasons Jeremy wanted to come was to get shots for the next book and book tour.
I’ll let Wendell Pierce close this one:
**also, and this is unfortunately sad news, I did witness Jeremy Cowart using a hypodermic needle to shoot steroids into his shutter finger. It is rare to find a photographer with so much talent and natural skill.
Another hero goes down.
(apparently somebody actually believed me. this is a joke. jeremy does not use steroids to take better pictures. at least it hasn’t been proven.)