Wherever you walked on the National Mall yesterday, there were smiles, so many of them that no one even has a clear count. "We, the people," are apparently quite happy with the inauguration of Barack Obama; there was a tangible mood change here in the nation's Capitol, as if joy were the new President's first executive order. The crowd on the Mall was especially playful. When President George W. Bush emerged onto the inaugural platform, an enormous chant began, "Nah-nah-nah-nah. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye."
Despite the chatter of the crowds and the giddiness of the day, a quiet seriousness still pervaded the Mall. With the Lincoln Memorial clearly visible in the distance, and Dr. King's memory fresh from the national holiday of service the day before, the masses huddled by the weather were mostly reflective.
How could you not be moved by the middle-aged black man standing next to you, crying as the new President was sworn in? How could you not be moved when you realized the man freely taking the oath at the Capitol shared a heritage with the workers who constructed the building itself under conditions that were anything but free? And how could you not be moved by the generational shift taking place right before your eyes.
Inauguration day actually began the day before. In order to obtain the tickets my local member of Congress had assigned for me, I had to pick them up myself, as did everyone else, at the Cannon House Office Building on Monday. Congress gives out about a quarter-million such tickets and each one is handed out in person. That means each lucky guest must go through the metal detectors at the offices the day before. That was a three hour line.
Despite the not-quite-so moving Inauguration Day traffic, the crowds allowed me to meet many terrific folks. We are all taught as children not to talk to strangers, but during those hours standing still or barely inching along, I violated that rule repeatedly. I met doctors, teachers, clerical workers, and firefighters--Americans there to acknowledge that we really do live in a nation where all things are possible. Everyone had personal reasons for coming--a victory over discrimination, perhaps, or relief after eight years of feeling shut out from one's own government--but the mantra was the same, "I never thought I'd live long enough to see this... I just had to be here to see it for myself."
There were all sorts of celebrities whose faces appeared on the jumbotrons, and even an occasional walk-by, if you kept a sharp eye (Look, there's Jay-Z!). Ultimately, however, it was the children who impressed me most. They will grow up without the limits which shaped our world. They will invent a new reality which we cannot imagine.
Particularly unfortunate for this Florida boy, the thermometer didn't cooperate. It was cold. Really, really cold. I'm talking silicone-foot-warmers-and-ski-gloves cold. However, it was a small price to pay to witness the most historic transfer of ultimate power. Let's hope the economy gives the new President a warmer reception in the times to come.