Along with many of the hundreds of thousands of people who came to the District of Columbia for the most recent presidential inauguration, I got gloriously hammered on Tuesday night. Even Wednesday's hangover felt good; like a pleasant weariness without the sour stomach or creeping shame. My theory is that this kind of hangover only happens when the celebration, and not the drink, is the point of the exercise. On Tuesday January 21st 2009 a lot of people in Washington, DC, and I suspect everywhere else in the world, drank way too much. But for once our drunkenness wasn't to blot out reality, but to revel in it.
The more I think about it, the more miraculous the whole event becomes, because in truth it was a complete fiasco. The weather was brutal. Nothing happened as planned. Law enforcement was overwhelmed and in a permanent state of improvisation. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court mangled his lines so badly they had to redo the oath of office the next day. And Dick Cheney showed up in a wheelchair. I suspect this was his way of, for the last time, expressing his contempt for the constitution and it's new and elegant young standard-bearer. The malevolent old engineer of catastrophe decided to sit and glare, while the rest of the world stood and gazed. But it didn't matter. For once in our prickly and divided society neither discomfort nor inconvenience, nor partisan anger, mattered. Yes, there were some boos when President Bush was announced, but far more of us looked askance at such boorishness, and simply waited, satisfied that in a few hours the White House would no longer be occupied by the 43rd President, and his craven and intellectually dehydrated administration.
The day truly did belong to the hopeful.
Determined to be as close as possible to the front of the line, we had climbed into a cab just after dawn. Our driver, a Middle-Eastern gentleman who'd already endured days of aggravation from the constantly revised 'perimeter', nevertheless seemed to have taken the 'Yes We Can' mantra to heart. He drove with stealth, and cleverly feigned ignorance, through undermanned checkpoints, back streets and alleys to within a few hundred yards of our Reserved Standing Orange Tickets meeting point. The line, already a complex shape, snaked toward one of the long, many-gated security checkpoints, where it seemed that every guard was smiling like Macy's elves in charge of access to Santa. Our numbers grew with quiet orderliness and astonishing speed. Earlier, before we started to move there seemed to be only one official person in charge of the area where we stood shivering for over an hour; an athletic young cop with keen eyes and a big voice. He did a great job, but ultimately it wouldn't have mattered if he'd been incompetent, or part of a squad of fifty. The vastness of the crowds moving toward the Capitol and the National Mall were overwhelming, and it was clear that the authorities were far more dependent on good will than on any plan they may have had to orchestrate the event. In that way the inauguration was like the election. A lot of plans were made to stop, or at least control, the outcome of that day, and then millions of people showed up, and walked the country down the path of history. No wonder Cheney took to his wheelchair.
The official explanation of the former Vice President's injury is that it was the result of 'moving heavy boxes...'. One has to admire the economy displayed by his staff, they simply left off the second half of the sentence, which likely read, '...of secret documents toward the shredder.', or '...of blackmail photos toward his safe.', or '...of absurd definitions of the word "torture"', or '...of Darth Vader outfits he can now wear publicly.'
Having been admonished by our new president to, as my brother put it, "Get off your asses, America!," we exited the inaugural enclosure and began to walk toward said brother's house six blocks away on East Capitol Street. Suddenly over our heads, Marine One, the Presidential helicopter, banked in a long graceful curve. It was Bush, taking a last look at the place he'd lived, part time, for the past eight years. We didn't bother waving. Meanwhile Cheney was likely rolling down a subterranean corridor for a last look at his favorite undisclosed location.
Which brings me back to that delightful hangover.
I'd been warned by my sister-in-law, who has worked as a journalist in Washington for many decades, that "Going to those balls is a real pain in the ass." She is not wrong. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been if I had suddenly turned into a woman, especially a famous woman expected to look elegant and sexy no matter the temperature. My wife, and her fellow politically active babes, braved sub-zero wind chill to walk a red carpet in frocks with no more heft than a nightgown. Maybe Michelle Obama can help usher in a new era of warm fashions designed to help facilitate outdoor interviews on the red carpets of January. As long as they still feature cleavage, I will not object.
Once inside and warm, the party was off the hook.
Our ball, thrown by The Creative Coalition, wasn't attended by the Obama's, because it wasn't official. Nor, it turns out, was it a ball. It was a concert, featuring, we were told, Elvis Costello and Sting. But the real star of the evening was Sam Moore (of the great Soul duo Sam & Dave), and his band. Seventy five years old, wearing a velvet smoking jacket and two tone shades, Sam wandered around the stage in a manner reminiscent of John McCain during the disastrous 'Town Hall' debate. But unlike McCain, Sam Moore can bring the most divided crowd to it's feet simply by intoning the first few words of, say, "When Something is Wrong With my Baby". Sting and Elvis had their moments, but ended up singing backup for the brilliant old Soul Man as middle-aged white guys in tuxedos danced like children in the aisles. No wonder the Dixiecrats worked so hard to deny black people access to power. A microphone, in the hands of someone who knows how to use it, can change everything.
Back in the lobby bar at our hotel, which was stacked with extra flatscreens for the packed house of political junkies, we watched the Obama's dance to Beyonce´s scorching version of 'At Last', and toasted them, repeatedly, with booze that hasn't tasted that good in a long, long time.
Meanwhile, the stock market is down, Microsoft and General Electric are laying off thousands of workers, and yesterday Barack Obama authorized the first deadly missile strikes of his presidency. There will be a lot of sameness to the news in the months to come. But at least the man with the world's most powerful microphone will be speaking lucidly about it. In doing so he will swiftly begin to disappoint many of his most ardent campaign supporters. The difference, which I have no doubt is already being forgotten, is that Barack Obama told us, just last Tuesday, that things are going to get worse, and he did not tell us that we can expect to be rescued without changing the way we live. It was an impressively stern speech by another young President with the temerity to admonish his people to serve their country if they really want things to get better. There may not be another sweet national hangover for a while. So, here's to him, and to the future.
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