Monday, January 26, 2009

Rock for Barack

OK, that title is too easy.

Last Sunday the Presidential Inaugural Committee held a concert at the Lincoln Memorial as part of the Inaugural Opening Ceremonies, with spectators seated around the Reflecting Pool in Constitution Gardens. I went and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Lines were the order of the day--of the whole week, really. I deduced, and the press reported, that the Sunday concert was something of a dry run for Tuesday's inaugural ceremony, as much for the spectators as for the organizers, to know what to expect--but then moreso.

Another theme of the week turned out to be the (presumably unlicensed) sale of Obama merchandise. Hats, shirts, buttons--everything was for sale. My favorite product was an "Obama air freshener." No joke.Getting to the Lincoln Memorial area was a bit of an adventure. Much of downtown Washington was blocked off to vehicular traffic. Military police with Humvees were stationed along 23rd Street and Virginia Avenue, Northwest, the route from the GWU-Foggy Bottom Metro station to the designated entry point to the Constitution Garden grounds where spectators were to be admitted, near 19th Street and Constitution Avenue, Northwest. I and some other would-be concertgoers wanted to take up a more brisk pace than the adagio moving average on the sidewalks and stepped into the streets, empty but for the security personnel. Evidently fast-moving pedestrians are a threat to national security, and we were ordered back onto the sidewalk by guys with guns wearing balaclavas. They didn't seem especially open to persuasion, and I was in a hurry to beat the crowd, so I mostly obeyed that directive.

The crowds, by the way, were tremendous, and when I finally reached the sidewalk where we were all searched for contraband, there was a rewarding sense that we weren't going to let anyone cut in line. I suppose all of us were tempted, but there was a lot of peer pressure not to do so. (Though once inside, people trying to push through the crowded mob were sometimes playfully heckled "VIPs coming through! Everybody let these VIPs come through here!")

So I and my 300,000 new best friends arrived early and waited for the program to begin. It was as crowded as anything I've ever experienced. I sorted my way through and (unhappily) wound up two or three "rows" of people in front of four loud schmucks, who insisted on providing a running commentary of lame peanut gallery-esque comments--mostly jokes at the presenters' expense, interspersed with calling out occasional Blackberried updates on the ongoing Eagles-Cardinals playoff game. The culprits included the guy in the backwards blue baseball cap and his nearby buzz-cutted friend. Fortunately, I had the good sense to distance myself from these knuckleheads about halfway through the event.

I counted myself lucky at 6'4" to see over most everyone's heads, up to the Lincoln Memorial and the big screens, but shorter visitors would have had mostly a view of the back of other peoples' heads. A couple people went Zacchaeus-style, climbing up trees with varying degrees of success and, one imagines, comfort.

Honestly, at about a quarter mile away, all anyone could see was the Jumbotrons, either more or less obstructed. And so, I have a series of pictures of the Lincoln Memorial and Jumbotrons with celebrities.

The show got started with an invocation by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, whose audio feed was inaudible to the crowd until near the end. I'm told that HBO's later repackaging of the event cuts out this segment and can only speculate that this played a part in the opening audio snafu.

Bruce Springsteen and a red-robed gospel choir sang The Rising (an Obama campaign event staple), and Martin Luther King, III, spoke.

People didn't quite display proper symphony etiquette, loudly talking on cell phones and to one another during all the performances and speeches (especially the aforementioned knuckleheads behind me) but I could hear most of the event. Frequent overflies by planes on the River Visual approach to DCA made it hard to hear every word. Though it must have been cool to be on one of those planes and look out to see this tremendous mass of people

I knew some of who was going to be in the starting lineup--U2 and Bruce Springsteen, among others--but was truly astonished when Steve Carrell, of The Office fame, came out, speaking as neither Michael Scott or his Daily Show persona. Stevie Wonder joined in a medley much more characteristic of his public profile.

Samuel L. Jackson resisted what must have been a strong urge to make a Snakes on a Plane reference. Tom Hanks (not pictured) read from Aaron Copeland's Lincoln Portrait--inevitable, I suppose, at the Lincoln Memorial, with another Illinois president and Lincoln admirer about to assume office.
There were a host of other presenters, but the two biggest names were probably Bono and Obama. U2 was the exception in two regards: the only non-American act and the only to play two songs--two rockin' songs, I might add. Maybe not everyone was or is the biggest U2 fans, but I was glad to hear City of Blinding Lights (another from the campaign event playlist) and Pride (In the Name of Love).

Then the president-elect spoke for a few moments.

I think there were a few other speakers after that, and a big sing-along of This Land is Your Land, but it wound down quickly, and the task at hand became how to disperse a quarter million people. The police sensibly discarded their policy of "no pedestrians in the streets" policy (in force just a few hours before) and let us all go on our merry way.

My merry way led me up 17th Street, passing the Red Cross headquarters bedecked for the occasion and those same soldiers/MPs from earlier, now posing for photos with (mostly female) civilians in front of their Humvees. (One cameraman asked his subject to flash him a peace sign, but the sergeant pictured here on the left resolutely gave him only a thumbs-up, perhaps in deference to orders to be nonpolitical while in uniform.)

Even more amusingly, near the DAR Constitution Hall, either Fred Phelps' group or copycats set up a few anti-gay picketers. This was either a smart or very dumb move, to catch thousands upon thousands of Obama supporters just having been rallied up by not one but two leaders known as "The Boss," and some pro-gay marriage activists were either very quick in reacting or very well prepared, setting up a counter-protest which gained much more sympathy from the passing crowd.

I met up later that evening with some high school friends from Pittsburgh, where we watched parts of the Steelers-Ravens game, culminating with a Steelers win (of course), and stopped by a Capitol Hill Steelers bar.

What a day!

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