I have been involved in various aspects of eight different Inaugurations, including the spectacular event that concluded yesterday, or to be more exact sometime early this morning. Inaugural events have many movements. Essentially, you have the actual swearing in ceremony and parade, the premier daytime event, bracketed in by innumerable social events leading up to and extending beyond the more or less businesslike transaction signifying a peaceful transfer of power in the world's most powerful nation.
The sheer magnitude of the number of participants witnessing the Obama Swearing-In Event most assuredly distinguishes it from any other I have witnessed in my experiences dating back to 1976. However, the real distinguishing feature of the Event was the palpable emotions exhibited by individuals who had traveled to the Capitol simply to be a part of history, to be part of, to bear witness to an historical event that can never again be achieved: namely, the ascendancy of the first African-American to hold the power and title of commander-in-chief.
The social aspects of an Inauguration extend largely into the nighttime hours and are confined to limited numbers of individuals with the money, power, and connections to warrant special invitations. I have and did participate in a number of these events. But the true measure of the import and significance of the Inauguration is not found in these activities, but rather in the Event itself.
One simply could not escape the electricity, the excitement, the exhilaration on the faces of those walking the streets in anticipation of the Event. Large numbers of African-Americans, often with families in tow, bundled up, willing to forego simple pleasures like staying warm, busily rushed headstrong into inevitable bottlenecks at Metro stations, patiently waited to secure a spot of ground up to two miles from the Capitol, many waited for hours simply to witness the Event unfurl onto large screens strategically placed on the National Mall.
And after the Event, the logistical nightmare of dispersing nearly 2 million spectators once again forced individuals to bunch together like cattle as they waited to emerge from the attendant bottlenecks the large gathering necessitated. All this in freezing temperatures, with brutal winds driving the chill index down even further, with muscles tired from hours of standing and miles traveled around fenced off streets that defied the careful planning of Pierre L'Enfant centuries ago, yet all without incident.
There clearly was joy in the air, there were tears and hugs and embraces of total strangers. And as the crowds were moving back to the warmth of either hotels or buses, or elsewhere, all eyes were focused on the helicopter carrying No. 43 away. The chopper made a long sweep of the District and hearty chants of good-bye accompanied waves directed upward. Like the final official stamp closing an important deal, as the helicopter alighted and slowly disappeared into the cold gray sky the dream that indeed a new order, a new day would soon arrive became a reality.
A few blocks from the Mall, in the Southwest quadrant of the city, row upon row of idling buses filled streets that had been cordoned off to traffic. The streets were clogged with thousands of buses carrying tens or hundreds of thousands of people back to their respective communities. Many of these buses had arrived under cover of darkness that morning and would depart under cover of darkness that evening. The sheer desire to just be there, at this propitious moment in time, so overwhelmed individuals that they felt they just needed to see for themselves what to many had until only recently been unthinkable. And by this morning the streets had cleared, the barricades were coming down; traffic was returning to the arteries, the Metro was crowded with people going to work instead of tourists. And today we begin a new chapter in our history.
It will take an enormous amount of skill, perseverance, diplomacy, and jawboning, and just a dash of good luck thrown in for good measure to lift the country out of our winter of discontent. As President Obama cautioned it will neither be easy or quick. But if it were possible to capture and bottle the hope that was evident on the Mall yesterday there can be no doubt that together we will confront and conquer the difficulties that lie before us. Indeed, we shall overcome.