Locals knew something big was brewing last night. Taxis carrying journalists and politicians streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue racing to the White House. These first responders -- some in-the-know and some not -- gathered for a rare, late-night presidential speech. Waves of giddy excitement filled the air as President Obama announced the death of America's most wanted: Osama bin Laden.
By morning I was struck by a profound change in mood -- in the nation's capital and my own. It was difficult -- no, impossible -- not to think back to the tragedy of nearly a decade ago and feel a sense of shared celebration that a mass murderer had been brought to justice. Everywhere I turned people looked like the burden -- one we had almost forgotten we were carrying -- had lifted.
Workers stepped into offices fist-bumping and high-fiving, and our normally divided city suddenly didn't seem so divided anymore. Regular Joes and pols from both sides of the aisle took to the airwaves praising the president and the intelligence community for a job well done. Even Republican Rep. Peter King could be heard on MSNBC praising Obama not to mention -- yes -- Rush Limbaugh.
Cruising around the city during the day, the upbeat, elated mood is tangible from swanky K Street restaurants, to famous Capitol Hill watering holes, and even streetside food trucks doing a solid run on cupcakes and lobster rolls. In the last decade of our capital city's history, it is hard to remember a day where political sniping took a backseat to a coming together of Americans united on one issue. And it feels good.
I remember the sinking feeling on Sept. 11, 2001, when while anchoring the morning news from a top floor of USA Today's headquarter building across the river in Rosslyn, I watched the twin towers fall in our control room monitors. As we were scrambling to find a terrorism expert to go live with us, we watched out the window as a plane flew low over traffic and slammed into the Pentagon less than two miles from us. While employees raced down the stairs out of the building to run home to loved ones, we stayed on the air until late in the evening helping people to make sense of it all.
I remember Washingtonians banding together in sorrow and solidarity. Night after night, grounded commercial planes silenced the skies and Republicans and Democrats alike poured out on our state-named streets with lighted candles, tears falling from their eyes as they quietly sang "Amazing Grace." We were joined together in the dark of the night by the soothing sounds of fighter jets racing overhead. So much time has passed, but it is still hard for me to drive across the 14th Street bridge and past the Pentagon without thinking about the plume of smoke billowing out of the walls of that massive building.
It's a shame it takes a tragedy of the magnitude of 9/11 or the death of a mass murderer for us to find common ground. In this polarized political town, we mouth the words "compromise," but rarely put aside differences to make it happen. For those of us who came to the city bright-eyed and ready to take on the world, (and, yes, that includes President Obama), it's almost impossible to maintain the idealism that brought us here.
While I know today's shared joy will be fleeting and tomorrow's grind will shake us back to reality, it will fuel the optimist in me for years to come. Deep down, I'm still the 21-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who journeyed to the big city with big ideas and a big heart who wishes we agreed more than we disagreed.