Millions of people are expected to gather on the National Mall, between the west face of the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial; security is expected to be without any known precedent, and temperatures are not likely to rise above freezing… should we go? Should we go, and if we do, should we go as citizens, or as journalists? If millions of people can brave the crowds, the security and the cold, to witness an historic moment of such sweeping resonance, then why can’t we?
I realized over the weekend that I wanted to attend this event as a citizen, as a person who believes in the values of true democracy, and who believes that, flawed as the system is, it can still be bent to the virtues of those willing to engage it with principle and decency, and in that way, can be used to make life better and freer, even for the least powerful. And it came back to me what it was to witness the 15,000 people who did just this to attend then Senator Barack Obama’s campaign announcment speech, on 10 February 2007, when the conventional wisdom said he could never win.
We have to take the reins of our own connection with the world, we have to find a way to express the hopes and aspirations we have, in our manner of engaging the public sphere. Coming out to show that belief in a better way exists, that a movement can be what it says it is, that it’s worth hoping that an individual can acquire authority not for his own gain, but out of a sincere devotion to worthy service of the public good, is part of that engagement.
We drove to Silver Spring, Maryland, leaving New Jersey shortly after midnight, arriving shortly after 6 am, after a stop in Pennsylvania. The Metro station was flooded with people heading to the Mall, coming from all regions of the country. at least 4 ticket machines were out of tickets, and it looked like it could be a wait of several hours. Fortunately, one of the attendants let us through, telling us to pay on the way out.
The wait was not long and the train had room for most of us who were on the platform, around 7 am. By the next stop, it was packed to the limit and would begin skipping stations, with no one able to board. More than half our car stepped off the train at Chinatown, knowing or not knowing they would be asked to loop around the east side of the Capitol, and then walk through a tunnel crammed with foot traffic, to emerge on the other side of the Mall.
We continued on to Metro Center, and stopped in for a warm drink. I began writing, and my fellow traveler took the opportunity to answer nature’s call. We finished our drinks and walked the neighborhood in the direction of the Mall. We planned to enter around 12th Street, but were told we had to continue to 18th Street. There were now tens of thousands of people flooding in from all sides and it was virtually impossible to do anything but follow their general momentum.
We somehow pushed out from where we were and found our way to I Street, walking along to 18th, then turning down toward the Mall. We would finally enter the Mall around 10:30 am, amid a massive flock of seagulls gathering over the pond that lies between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Monument. The flood of foot traffic was coming up behind us and we made our way up the slow incline toward the foot of the giant obelisk.
We hoped to get in front of the Washington, to use the hill there as a perch from which to see the proceedings at the Capitol through binoculars. There was no chance. People had been camped there for hours, some overnight, and moving anywhere in front of the Washington Monument, far as it was from the Capitol, was time-consuming and a serious damper on the spirits.
We opted to retreat, in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, whose famed reflecting pool was enclosed by a capacity crowd. We made our way back to the monitors we had seen just after the World War II Memorial, downhill and to the west of the Washington Monument. The area was also crammed with people, but there were gaps. We found one and planted ourselves to wait the next 40 minutes or so till the ceremonies would begin. The atmosphere was electric and people were warm and friendly, no jostling, no hostility, no mob mentality.
There were some small demonstrations of protest, reminding passersby and the new president himself that there were policy changes being called for, on moral grounds. But there were no outbursts, there was no jostling, there were no visible heated arguments among people with disagreements about the definition of American values. It was a day when private conscience was shared in public, and people treated each other with dignity and respect anyway. Perhaps impossible on any ordinary day.
There was a persistent flow of good feeling, of people being generous with strangers, smiling and expressing a kind of faith in humanity, so rare in recent times, in the public sphere. One thing that occurred to me was that this was something people felt inspired by but also had permitted themselves to actually choose and to pursue, that so often we put aside our better emotions, our truer selves, because for some reason, we feel it is not really permitted in our environment, or it is seen as less-than or too far out to be justifiable.
That feeling of principled idealism, of knowing there is a right course, that it is not a sign of weakness to be both mature and executive, but also idealistic and cooperative, that being human makes it possible to see this, and that collaboration can happen and can be worked out in viable practical applications —in short, that being human is a hopeful experience, if we let it be, that sense of better or of possible improvements, that says we know who we are, we are good at bottom, we can break the ancient mold of power, in which might makes right—, is allowed to prosper here, is the unifying thread, that secret part of ourselves that genuinely cares and wants to trust in the possible virtues of a public sphere infused with good will and ideals… all that was flooding around the gathering multitude, and seems to be the real definition of this rare moment.
Can we remember this? The glories, many and resplendent, of the most visible overcoming and transcending of racial biases yet seen, are at the heart of the force of this moment, but that asepct of this renewal is just one of the symptoms of a spirit overtaking American politics. The new spirit of refusal to adopt the sinister logic of division and discrimination, so deeply rooted in the politics of the past, is bigger than race or party: it is a philosophical shift in popular consciousness.
Pundits and strategists mired in the constancies of past politics are falling over themselves trying to find an explanation, but a vast tectonic shift has taken place in the political appetites of the electorate. As candidate Obama hoped in his February 2007 campaign launch, we are seeing an “awakened electorate” at work.
Top-down rule is out of date, bur pro-active government is not. Social networking has converged with the passion common to millions for a public discourse in which humanity itself —be it the basic humanity of “real Americans”, of thinking people tired of agit-prop standing in for good policy, or of those tens of millions who cannot treat even simple illnesses, for the lunatic costs— has a resounding, relevant and central voice.
Barack Obama “sensed” this hunger, because —if we read his meditative memoir Dreams from My Father— he had always felt the tension between what was commonly done and what people hungered for. It’s not a political trick, then, but a man who can see clearly, with his mind open and his weighty self-confidence in service of his vision, not in service of an ideology, an excuse or a raft of narrow self-interests.
2 million or more impassioned citizens have turned out to inaugurate this new way, to say yes to the more inclusive, more thoughtful, more workmanlike brand of politics, freed from ideological bias, freed from Machiavellian vitriol, freed from the poisons of character assassination, focused, in all seriousness, on making a system that is designed to aim for and longs for its own betterment, actually a vehicle for betterment of the state of the Union, and the conditions available to its inhabitants.
The feeling in the air is of relief and exuberance at having defeated the many tentacles of cynicism in public life, having demonstrated that a candidate could speak out against the time-tested levers of power by which access is granted, challenge and go without their mechanisms —something that McCain in 2000 and Dean in 2004 could not pull off—, defeat the party apparatus, overthrow the conventional hierarchy, and still achieve a resounding victory.
The 20th of January 2009 is, for those gathered on the Mall, a “new birth of freedom”, a spiritual reversal, and a threshold moment marking the transition from one era in which cynicism used its deranged arguments to foist one self-fulfilling prophecy after another on the electorate, to one in which the language of possibility and the mechanics of human imagination shape the outcome of current and future events.
It was the right choice, unmistakably, to come to this historic gathering, to see a celebration of citizenship, of free assembly, of faith in a system that values human choice. Whether the spirit of the day can be manifest in policy initiatives, cooperative political negotiations, and humanitarian politics abroad, will be a test of the system and of those elected to represent it, and millions will be watching with a huge spiritual investment in the outcome.
After the ceremonies were concluded and the new president had left the stage that elevated him over the 2 million gathered, and framed him in the white of the house through which the people, in theory, govern, the crowd quickly and peacefully began dispersing into the streets around the Mall. There were special routes planned, to keep people from intruding into the secure zone set aside for the inaugural parade, in which Pres. Obama would walk through the streets amid tens of thousands of onlookers.
Many people chose to move toward the Lincoln Memorial, so prominent in the narrative leading up to and defining the historical moment of the 2009 inauguration of the 44th president. Obama’s candidacy had featured echoes of comparison to Abraham Lincoln, a “gangly self-made Springfield lawyer”, like Obama himself, who championed the anti-slavery cause, helped found a new political party, or a new moral majority, and kept the union together under the founding ideals of the Republic.
It was vitally important to many attending that there was a thread of historical resonance, running from Lincoln, through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered his celebrated “I have a dream” speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, to Obama himself, an African American man ascending to the most powerful office in the world with a message of social justice, democratic ideals and principled engagement with those who differ from his perspective, an inclusive mission to cap a troubled history building up to a society of inclusion.