Monday, January 19, 2009

Inauguration weekend

Well, as you might imagine, it's been a pretty exciting weekend here in D.C. The estimates ranged from 1 million to 5 million, but there is no question that we have a lot of visitors in town. I've been trying to think of ways I could capture what it's like to have the entire city taken over by the inauguration, but it's tough if you're not here. I've taken some pictures, below, which will give you a glimpse, but the energy and excitement is really missing from them.

But first I have to opine a little - of course. Like I said, the energy around this inauguration is huge, and no question there are some very Obama-specific reasons for that: He's a historic president-elect, he's a man whose supporters really love him, and there's a lot of really big issues hanging over our country right now. But being here, surrounded by it, I've been thinking a lot about what is really so amazing and inspiring about inaugurations in general, and even if it's not on the top of the minds of everyone who's here to celebrate the inauguration, I think it's something that means a lot to all Americans, even if they're not totally conscious of it. It's this concept of the "peaceful transfer of power," and it really is pretty miraculous - more so when you realize that it's come to seem so mundane and taken for granted.

Try to think about it, to grasp how amazing it is that the most powerful position in the world is being willingly handed over tomorrow from one man to another - two men who agree on very few things regarding the specifics of how to run this country. Emphasis on willingly, on the fact that this is a peaceful transfer of power. We've had more than 200 years of this kind of transfer of power happening, so we really don't think a lot about it happening any other way. But it's so unusual historically, and even across much of the world today it's a luxury not every country enjoys.

We don't have to have wars or coups to get new leadership in our country. We don't have to wait for a dictator to die. We just vote, and everyone respects the outcome.

One of the history lessons I remember most profoundly from when I was in middle school was the first time I learned about the election of 1800. I remember my teacher talking about it as a "bloodless revolution," about what a test it was for the young country. When the Electoral College chose Thomas Jefferson as the country's third president, it was a historic first: the first time the presidency moved from one political party (the Federalists) to another (the Democratic-Republicans). The way that transfer of power played out would make or break whether American democracy actually worked. Would the Federalists peacefully get up and leave power, would they let a man they openly despised just walk right in and take charge, to lead the country in a different direction, just because voters declared it so? And when they did, it was remarkable because it was a testament to the power of a country founded on a fundamental, overarching principle, the principle of democracy, which was so important to those early American leaders that its ideals overrode their strong opposition to Democratic-Republicanism and their own egos, their own thirst for power.

I remember initially being sort of boggled by this concept. Was there really a time in America when there were question marks over whether an outgoing president would leave peacefully or would call out the National Guard to protect the White House, with violence if necessary, from the incoming would-be president? When you think about it, it's one of the most revolutionary things about America, and the fact that it happens so much more frequently in countries around the world today shows how influential and amazing it was.

When you think of it in terms of this current transfer of power, it's really astounding. After two years of Obama running largely against Bush's record, and of President Bush running on behalf of McCain so vehemently against Obama - as soon as the election was held, all that turned around and these two men worked together with such dedication to ensuring that the presidential power is handed over smoothly and peacefully. Many pundits see Obama's election as an enormous rejection of President Bush's eight years in office by the American people, and how does Bush react to that rejection? By doing anything he can to help Obama be successful from Day 1. It's the power of recognizing that in the gray area between all of our different opinions lie the truly workable solutions that will make the country better, and that we only get to those gray areas by working with the people we disagree with most.

Everyone is excited about this historic moment for different reasons. We are about to have a black president. We are about to have a president who sees our two wars, our economy, our foreign policy, our environment and our place in the world so dramatically differently from the way the previous president sees these things. We're about to have a president who, love him or hate him, is a stirring speaker and a really nice guy. But the underlying thing that everyone is aware of is this idea that things are about to change. And the reason that that fact of change has drawn so many people to D.C. to celebrate their country and ignore the bitter cold is this: the amazing ability of our country to change course when the majority thinks a course-change is necessary, and for all Americans - regardless of where people sit on the ideological spectrum - to accept that change because it's the way the vote went, and for it all to happen in a spirit of mutual celebration. I think this is why my Republican friends at work are as excited for this inauguration as my Democratic friends are: Here, in the city where we live, something miraculous, something we all take for granted, is going to happen again, for the 44th time, and we're all in it together.

OK, sorry, but I guess if you're ever going to tolerate someone waxing patriotic, a historic inauguration is as good a time as any. Now, enjoy photos.

First, I've tried to gather just a small sampling of the inescapable omnipresent reminders everywhere you go in this city that it's inauguration weekend. On the sides of buses, in restaurant windows, everyone is using the inauguration to advertise. The first one is hard to read; it's a sign above Amsterdam Falafel, my favorite fast food in my neighborhood, that says, "Welcome to Washington, Barack and Michelle."

This one is in the window of the French restaurant Napolean at the end of my street. Not sure how I feel about the use of a power-hungry emperor's image in an Obama campaign poster, but c'est la vie, I guess:

On the National Mall Saturday night, on my way to a friend's house in Virginia, I passed MSNBC's makeshift studio, where they've been broadcasting live for the last few days, in front of the Capitol. They were broadcasting "Hardball with Chris Matthews" (which, coincidentally, I'm watching on TV as I write this). I stood around and watched for a while. Chris Matthews with one of his guests:

Chris inside the studio, and Chris on TV outside the studio:

Pat Buchanan, inside and on TV:

Next, the big-screen TVs all over the Mall so the huge crowds can watch everything going on. These photos were taken Saturday night, too, before the We Are One concert on Sunday, so I'm not sure what they are showing, but I see Pete Seeger... Maybe a warm-up or something?

Setup along the parade route, with the White House in the background:

And photos from the We Are One concert on the Mall Sunday (the one with Beyonce, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Josh Groban, John Legend, John Mellencamp, Tom Hanks, Marisa Tomei.... you get it).

The security was, of course, EVERYWHERE...

...but it all went smoothly, and everyone was very cool and respectful of the security processes. And the security personnel were very accommodating to the crowds. These firefighters were letting people hand them their cameras, so they could get crowd shots for them from the top of their firetruck:

Happy Inauguration, everyone! Whether you voted for Obama or not, here's hoping we're all together in hoping for the best from this new administration!


Joe said...

Wait a second. Did you vote for Obama? It seems like you did, but I can't quite tell. :)

Seriously, though, thanks for this post. It's so great to have the point of view of someone who lives there and breathes there and can see all the goings on and happenings and such. Have fun tomorrow.

doug said...

Haha - and therein lies my point. I really think that, unless you're just an inconsolable partisan, an inauguration is a great moment for the entire country.

Brian said...

You're smart.

Jeanne said...

You're brilliant and very open minded and I'm a proud mama :-)

amelia said...

Oh how cool to be there!

SB said...

wax away my friend. you inspire me.

Joe said...

A great account of it all. As much as other countries question our ability to elect effective leaders, we hold our process in a peaceful and fair manner, and join together to respect the outcome. as partisan as we are, in troubled times we are united, and move together toward a positive next step.