lessons from America

A Mall-rat’s perspective of the Inauguration ceremony

I have already got told off once today for calling what I witnessed a coronation. And my classification is not a judgement on Obama or his supporters, but on the spectacle of the occasion. For was it so much different than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on 2nd June 1953 (not that I was alive then)? Yes, we lacked the gold, the carriages, the outward trappings of monarchy. But there was still the focus on one person invested with so much popular goodwilll formally attaining power; the adoring crowds; the rows of political and international elites; the taking of an oath; even a rendition (of sorts) of God Save the Queen. And more than that, there was the feeling of a grand historical occasion; of something that makes its way not just into textbooks, but into the hearts and minds of a nation; a day and an event that becomes part of the very fabric and identity of the country and its people.

However, 20 January 2009 was a day for citizens, not subjects; for the celebration of the political as well as the presidential. And that came very strongly through in the crowd reaction to the former presidents and other political figures as their entrance was announced.

First up Jimmy Carter: a hearty round of applause and cheering. On the audio I took of the event, I can clearly hear myself saying (to myself), “if only my tutor could see me now”. I don’t know where David Mervin is now, but he took my final year class on The US Presidency and never warmed to my attempts to resurrect the standing of Jimmy Carter or recognise his post-Presidency achievements as being beneficial to how he and the office of presidency were viewed. Well, this [and Carter’s Nobel Prize] are ample evidence of who won that argument.

Next up, Bush 41. A dignified but not warm welcome for the ageing Bush senior.

Followed by the entrance of Bill Clinton. There seemed little trace of the animosity he aroused during the Primary campaign; instead he was greeted a hero – perhaps as the prodigal son returning to the fold.

Compare that with what happened when Bush and Cheney entered:

I had expected – given the way Americans venerate the office of presidency and the solemnity of the ceremony – for Bush to be shown more respect, even through gritted teeth and reluctant hands. Even I was surprised (but heartened) at the scale of the boos greeting Bush. It may be unprecedented for an outgoing President to be treated in that way.

Now compare again with the way Obama was hailed when he made his entrance:

And also that moment of celebration after the oath had been taken and Obama had formally become the 44th President of the United States.

Incidentally, I believe constitutionally he is counted as taking office from midnight on the 20th, so this ceremony may even be unneccesary. That also explains the lack of panic over the need to re-do the oath: a precautionary measure because of the Chief Justice’s stumbles rather than to repair a constitutional crisis.

And so to those oaths. To me, it was one of the most emotional parts of the day. I had some of that same sense of euphoria and liberation as during those moments in Grant Park, Chicago, as Obama’s victory was officially declared. In both cases, it was partly about relief: this time relief that Dick Cheney was no longer V-P and a few minutes later Bush was no longer President. But also a sense of satisfaction, pride and optimism. Yet there was not the wild celebrations or intense emotional highs of election night. The cold probably numbed more than just feet and hands. But also I hadn’t fully appreciated beforehand the more solemn tone of proceedings. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of flag-waving and cheering to be had at the critical times.

First, Biden’s oath:

And then Obama’s:

In the coming days I’ll be putting more up on this site about the general atmosphere in DC during inauguration week, the inaugural balls and the stories of some of the people I met.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Inauguration morning – a view from the ground

Everyone I speak to back here in the UK say the same thing about the inauguration: “it looked cold”. Oh yes, it didn’t just look cold. It was cold. By my softy southerner standards, very cold. How did I survive? Whisky and chocolate. I enjoyed the excuse not only to start drinking before dawn, but also to eat as many Oreo cookies and chocolate-covered pretzels as I could manage. Hot drinks were out: not just because of the insane queues to get a cuppa, but because drinking tea or coffee increased the chances of having to use the porta-potties (more queues again, as well as the unpleasant experience).

My enthusiasm for getting a good spot on the Mall meant that I dragged out Meghan, Lewis and Tracy shortly after 5am and we were on the Mall by 6am – a full 6 hours before that magic swearing-in moment. Here is a satellite image from that morning, marked up with our location (click on the image for a larger version):


Seeing the sun rise over the Capitol was a definite plus and we hoped the temperature would rise appreciably too. That sadly wasn’t the case. The cold seeped from the ground, through the newspapers I was standing on, through my boots and into my feet – despite 3 pairs of socks, including one really thick woollen pair. No matter how wrapped up we were, the cold still got through.

There were some clever people next to us who had brought buckets to stand on: both to keep away from the cold ground and also to see better once proceedings started.

Equally, there were some people near me – I don’t know how they managed – who just curled up and slept on rugs and blankets. One was the ‘victim’ of a sketch by British comedian John Oliver: side-kick to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, but previously one half of the successful duo behind Political Animal and other political satire shows on radio and on the UK comedy circuit.

There was a ‘warming station’ somewhere for those in dire need. It turned out to be a heated coach which you had to queue (outside) for an hour for, and then get a strictly controlled 20 minutes of warming inside the coach. There were also a few grates channelling warm air from the subway ventilation system, and these were understandably some of the most crowded spaces around. Another way to stay warm was with some impromptu singing, though sadly no campfire:

But things really took off when, around 10.30am, the jumbotrons started screening highlights of the special concert held by the Lincoln Memorial on the Sunday afternoon. Suddenly the crowd began singing and dancing – as much I suspect to keep spirits up and keep the circulation going, as in appreciation for the music. There were some ol’ patriotic favourites though: American Pie, This Land is Our Land among them.

And then as the main inauguration ceremony got under way, the chants of “Obama, Obama” became more frequent.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment