For reasons I can't fully explain, I've long been fascinated with the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. So great was my interest that I actually visited Romania ten years ago. When the trip comes up in casual conversation, I'm invariably asked if I'm of Romanian descent or if I had gone to adopt an orphan. Nope, just wanted to see where Ceausescu rose to power, where the citizenry turned on him and where he's buried in a grave marked by (at least when I was there) an inverted family-sized Coke bottle.
Ceausescu and Romania were far from my mind when I decided to trek to Washington for Barack Obama's inauguration. I had made a promise to myself and my New York-based pal Jim Bessman that we'd bear witness if Obama actually won. A day or so after the election, I cashed in a bunch of airline miles and started the countdown to 1/20/09 -- just like those "how many years-months-days-hours left until Bush is out" clocks.
I arrived on Sunday morning, "refreshed" from sharing the LAX-Dulles red eye with a hundreds of kids who spent the whole flight messing with their personal electronic devices and starting all sentences with "like." As a certified geezer this only reminded me of Dobie Gillis's Maynard G. Krebs, masterfully played by the pre-Gilligan Bob Denver. Spirits were high; sleep wasn't a priority for these "youts."
Lucky for me, my brother lives in a Northern Virginia suburb and had kindly volunteered to pick me up at the airport at an ungodly hour Sunday morning. I took the subway into town and met up with Brother Bessman and hightailed it over to the Lincoln Memorial for the big pre-inaugural concert. The performers and stars were clearly pumped for the show and there were highlights that professional considerations (I'm a music biz pr guy) prevent me from citing. I will say that I got to meet Challenger, the Eagle, who, God bless America, chose not to peck my eyes out and how about Renée Fleming? Can I say she rocked? I just did.
Made it to the HuffPo pre-inaugural ball and met David Gregory, Ed Harris, Sting's manager and even got to kibitz with Arianna for a solid 15 seconds. The countdown to midnight was fun and I came away with an obnoxious noisemaker keepsake.
On merely 3 hours of sleep, Jim and I began the trek to the mall for the Big Moment with a 7 AM cab ride to the Fall Church Metro station. The subway into town was chock full of sleep deprived merry makers. After some fits and starts the jam-packed train stopped dead in a tunnel for what seemed like an hour but it was probably just 10 minutes. "Wanna hear my Obama song?" asked a young guy with a shit-eating grin on his face. "YEAH!" screamed everybody in the car. "OK, here goes, 'Oba-ma, Oba-ma, Oba-ma, Oba-ma, Oba-MA!" (Imagine some kind of tuneful, rhythmic structure here). Despite the paucity of lyrics -- or perhaps because of the paucity of lyrics we had no problem singing along on the second verse that was amazingly exactly the same as the first. And so on...
An hour (or was it two?) later we finally got out of the subway and hoofed it over to the mall with a quick stop at Constitution Hall which has come a long way since the days of the D.A.R. barring Marion Anderson from singing there. Best Buy had booked the joint to show the swearing-in on a big screen for the frostbite averse. More importantly, the bathrooms at the venerable venue are indoors!
Within short order we found a spot in front of the Washington Monument a scant mile or so from the Capitol steps but within handy view of a Jumbotron. We made friends with a couple from Phoenix who were blogging for the local NBC affiliate ("they didn't even ask for a writing sample!"). You've all seen the coverage on TV; Obama was masterful, we cheered when we saw shots of Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, Ted Kennedy, etc. Hell, we were so upbeat that we didn't even hurl when we saw Dan and Marilyn Quayle show up. I mean, who can get riled up over a human punch line? Then it happened, what I like to call the Ceausescu moment. Bush appears on screen and an ominous rumble took over the heretofore-happy crowd. The "boos" swelled and built in intensity and I found myself involuntarily screaming "FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!" as tears began to roll down my face. This man had diminished the worth of our lives over the course of the last eight years and it looked like he was going to get away with it. Then we saw Dick Cheney in his new wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove guise, having strained his back packing to move to undisclosed location. "EVIL!!!!" I shouted as loud as I could. I was face to face with a Jumbotron approximation of a demon that made my head spin and my body contort. Our group calmed down as the ceremony got underway and we focused on the future: Obama, his family, Joe and Jill Biden and a renewed love of country that made me wish I had one of those little flags to wave.
On the way out, I glanced upward and saw Marine One, the presidential helicopter, overhead. Bush was in it, hovering above a crowd of 2 million of his countrymen that he had betrayed. Like the aforementioned Ceausescu, he ignored the rule of law and turned his country into a fiefdom for cronies and sycophants. It's hard to believe it ever happened but we're not going to forget. Ever.