It was Sunday afternoon, a time when downtown Washington, D.C., is generally empty, save for museum-going tourists. Not this past inaugural weekend. My son and I sat in grid-lock traffic, stretching the seven miles from our home to Union Station. He was supposed to catch a 4 p.m. train back to college.
As we crawled past the vice president's mansion we were brought to a stop again by more sirens and flashing lights. Three white mini-buses, each escorted by speeding police cars blaring with self-importance, raced by us. The traffic resumed its creeping pace.
"Huh. Mini-buses. That's unusual. Who was in those do you think?"
Decoding motorcades is something of a Washington car game. "Not the vice president, obviously," my son replied. "He's always in a black car with tinted windows. And there wasn't a second car so it couldn't be the president." (The second car serves as a decoy. The same when the president flies over the city in his helicopter, Marine One. You can tell it's him because it's trailed by a twin.)
"And there were no motorcycles."
"Right. I don't think it was anyone super-important. Presidential relatives maybe?"
"Could be. Or maybe congressmen being shuttled from event to event."
"Yeah, that makes sense." We both glanced at the clock again. We were barely a mile from the house and a quarter hour had passed.
"Do you remember when Biden made me late for school?" my son asked.
"Hah, no. Remind me."
"So I overslept one morning but I managed to make the bus, and I was like a minute away from the school -- I was just going to make it -- when the vice president's motorcade suddenly appeared and stopped traffic. Got a late slip. I was really pissed off."
He considered what he'd just said and smiled. "I guess not many kids can say the vice president made them late for class."
"It's a weird city to grow up in," I agreed.
IT WAS THAT kind of weekend -- for the permanent residents of the capital a combination of celebration and hassle. Flocks of circling helicopters thwack, thwack, thwacked overhead like noisy mechanical geese. The inaugural parties were no less gridlocked than the streets.
Daily Beast/Newsweek held what was billed a bipartisan brunch at Cafe Milano, Washington's equivalent of Tavern on the Green. It proved to be bipartisan on many fronts: Grover Norquist poked through the same buffet as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaragosa. Harvey Weinstein and Eva Longoria mingled with policy heavyweights such as former defense secretary William Cohen; Arianna Huffington broke bread with our hostess Tina Brown -- two rival Internet queens cheerfully holding court over mimosas and sparkling water.
It's an unofficial rule here that the best Washington parties are given by New Yorkers (Exhibit A: the annual Vanity Fair after-party at the White House Correspondent's Dinner). Our own parties tend towards the stodgy and brutal, much like the city itself.
So if you live outside Washington, the phrase "inaugural ball" might conjure up images of princesses and glass slippers. Think again.
I attended my first (and only) inaugural ball in 1989. A friend of ours had scored tickets to the Texas ball, to be held that year at the Air and Space Museum. Of course it was THE ball to go to, given the Texan connections of our newly elected president, the first George Bush.
I'd like to tell you that the evening went magically: that we drank flutes of champagne and nibbled on blini as we watched the new president and first lady dance to an 18-piece orchestra. I'd like to tell you that I exchanged witticisms with incoming cabinet ministers and was even asked to dance by one of the president's sons (who knew one day he would become president?!).
The reality was -- well, try to imagine attending a party at O'Hare airport, lines and security included. Imagine standing in topply, impractical heels and shivering in bare shoulders as the inaugural equivalent of TSA agents inspected ID and hustled you through metal detectors. Imagine then stepping into the vastness of a Smithsonian museum, as crowded as a departure lounge on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Except here everyone is drunk (and you can't figure out how this is possible because it will eventually take you two hours to find the bar and shove your way to the front for one lousy drink). Did the president and the first lady arrive already? Did they dance? You don't know because the dance floor area is similarly impossible to navigate. I remember the most exciting moment of the evening was sighting Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, bow tie slightly askew, traveling on a down escalator as we went up.
ON INAUGURATION DAY 2013, Martin Luther King day, the city was as quiet as a church before the bride and groom march down the aisle.
Again I found myself driving downtown, this time with my husband, on our way to watch the festivities from the rooftop balcony of the Canadian embassy. Once every four years, the Canadians have the best seats in the house: From the embassy's roof, you can see the vast sweep of the Capitol and its grounds; the inaugural parade route passes directly below.
We were able to penetrate as near as three blocks from the embassy before we were prohibited by perimeter security from going any further. I argued with my husband about where to park: there was definitely an apocalyptic feeling to the empty streets. By that time most of the crowds were already at the mall and what remained were patrols of heavily armed soldiers, humvees, police and sharpshooters. I insisted that we should just park illegally -- seriously, were the cops going to ticket us today? They obviously had bigger duties to attend to.
My husband retorted that he wasn't worried about being ticketed or even towed. "Today is the sort of day they'll just blow up the car. We'll return and find all that's left is scorched pavement and bits of melted rubber."
He had a point there. So we drove around until we found a meter that didn't have a temporary no-parking sign taped to it, buttoned up our coats and walked in the direction of the cheers. It was definitely a more subdued day than four years ago, when the entire city felt seized by Obama-mania. Even the street vendors seemed to offer fewer souvenir tchochkes -- the tables of "Obama Nation" T-shirts and commemorative crockery looked positively meager in comparison to the riches of memorabilia four years ago. I suppose you could build a whole political thesis out of this observation: What does it say about Obama's diminished popularity? etc., etc. But the Washingtonian in me thought, "Meh. Second term."
We reached the gates of the embassy, where security guards festooned in bright red-and-white "Canada/USA" scarves passed out red-and-white striped mittens to the arriving guests. A huge tailgate party was taking place on the embassy's front steps. A long line had formed in front of a food truck serving "Beaver Tails," which is the Canadian equivalent of funnel cakes: flattened pastries globbed with assorted sticky toppings.
Inside Ambassador Gary Doer and his wife Ginny graciously greeted throngs of politicians and diplomats. Who wouldn't prefer to watch the ceremony from this glorious perch, well-fed and warm, a glass of wine or steaming cup of Tim Horton's coffee in hand?
Canada's feisty foreign minister, John Baird, was this year's embassy guest of honor. I'd met him at a pre-inaugural event the night before and was impressed to see him leave in a Diamond taxi cab. No black tinted windows or earpieced security goons for this guy. Not even an Uber! A refreshing contrast to the limo wars that were being waged outside pre-inaugural parties all over the city. (I overheard one elegantly coiffed lady complain to her husband -- as they stood freezing and waiting for their car to be called up in front of a hotel -- that they should have brought her car because it "wasn't black like all the others. We might see it more quickly.")
AFTER MARVELING AT the view of the Capitol, dressed up in its best bunting, I retreated to the warm indoors to watch the ceremony on a big screen. The convivial party chatter hushed when the president took the Oath of Office, and remained respectfully silent throughout his speech.
I felt, as always on these occasions, that for all the cynicism and partisanship that pervades every waking moment in Washington, these events have the power to make it stop. Even if just for a quarter hour. The solemnity of the proceedings underscores the fact that, for better or worse, we're going to be married to this president for the next four years. As with a marriage ceremony, skeptics are moved to suspend their misgivings for at least a few brief minutes -- and instead reflect on the greatness of the institution as a whole. That a president may fall short of his loftily stated promises is to be expected. The gimlet-eyed aunt in the front row may well be right and will have many years to tell you so. Yet in the drama of the moment, you hope for the best. You want, for just a few seconds, the angry shouting and jeering to stop before --
"I don't think it was a good as 2008."
"He was basically saying, 'screw you' to the Republicans --"
"I was surprised he didn't talk more about guns."
"I thought Michelle looked angry."
Oh well. That's the nature of our democratic politics, as epitomized by these quadrennial rituals of renewal. Hope and celebration tempered by opposition, cynicism and traffic jams.