Monday, January 26, 2009

Waiting hours for the transfer of power

There's that [cinéma vérité] moment where the helicopter you're watching on the screen suddenly becomes the actual helicopter overhead.
-- Hank Stuever, When a Love-In Spreads to Most All D.C. Streets, the Washington Post, January 21, 2009

They told us it would be crowded. They told us it would be cold. They--in this case, the Presidential Inaugural Committee--were absolutely right on both counts.

I'm telling you it was awesome.

I got up at 3:15 a.m. to head down to the Mall from the Northwest Washington neighborhood where family friends were very graciously hosting my brother and me. He and a friend of his from college had decided that two hours' sleep wasn't even worth it and they set out for America's Front Lawn around 2:00 a.m. Madness, I say.

My early start was prompted by predictions of record crowds (correct predictions, I might add) and my desire to get a jump on them, ideally by being on the first train when the Metro system opened at 4 a.m. that morning. The taxi I called at 3:30 a.m. never materialized--I'm still waiting for them to call me back and let me know they're in the neighborhood--but after 30 minutes standing on a street corner, a taxi that just happened to be in the neighborhood took me to the Foggy Bottom-GWU station. So far, so good. I got on going towards downtown, and everything was normal--if jam-packed rush hour-style trains were normal at 4:30 a.m. Getting off at L'Enfant Plaza, though, was where things took a sharp deviation from normal.

I made it out of the station and jogged ahead of the remaining mass of people towards what I thought would be a mostly-vacant lot near the intersection of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, Southwest. But people had been there for hours, it seemed, and in the kind of localized decision making that ultimately resulted in the Purple Tunnel of Doom (where people with Purple and Silver tickets got shut out), I guess people were let into the space earlier than had been previously announced.

So I shuffled over to 7th Street at Independence Avenue, still Southwest, and waited in line next to some sort of school group. Figuring that from about 5:30 a.m., when I arrived there, through 7 or 8, when the gates were scheduled to open, I would be waiting, I tuned into the local NPR affilliate, WAMU, to hear essentially wall-to-wall coverage of the inauguration, the crowds, traffic, reaction from around the world, etc.

Around 7, we were ready to be let in to the Mall, but in some epic misunderstanding or miscommunication--"purplegate" seemingly characteristic of the crowd control elements of the day--that area was deemed full to capacity--though it was clearly not--and we were told to move along to entrances at 12th or 14th Streets. Already getting sick of this and not wanting to be more than a mile away from the Capitol, I double-timed it to 12th Street where--surprise!--there was no security screening at all! That's good, because it would have taken just about forever and most of us wouldn't have much liked taking off our jackets and other layers in the morning chill. (I wore eight layers on top, three on bottom, two pairs of socks, plus a hat, gloves and scarf. With all that, I was just barely not cold.)
Then came the waiting, from 7:15 a.m. when I arrived at my spot (near the center of this map, north of the Arts and Industries Building and just south of the main east-west axis of the Mall) until the ceremony got started at 11:30 a.m. I amused myself with NPR and when Morning Edition went into repeats, I switched over to C-SPAN radio, trying in vain to call in to Washington Journal, I suspect because cellular networks around the Mall were overloaded.

[The sun rises. That's got to be some kind of "Morning in America" metaphor.]

The many Jumbotrons along the Mall began to play back the concert from two days earlier, which helped while away the time, and then the official program began with its various musical selections and then the swearings-in themselves, all of which is well known.

[That's right, someone is waving a Terrible Towel in this picture!]

The Jumbotron feed wasn't always in sync with either C-SPAN radio or anything else, but did on occasion use a live overview of the Mall, and whenever they showed us, we waved our Girl Scout-provided flags. Quite the display.
As it got nearer to "showtime," we saw more and more recognizable faces. People got excited when the Clintons were seen coming down the hallway to the west Capitol façade.

Finally, the man of the hour came down the hallway.

Someone near me called out at 11:58:20 that there was only one minute and forty seconds left until noon, so when the musical interlude by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and company was not unexpectedly short, I knew the legal moment of transfer of power had passed before the President stepped up to the podium and raised his right hand.

Of course, that should have been the ultimate climax of the day, but having had someone call out the time deflated it a bit for me. I also expected there to be more reverberation in the crowd but it does occur to me that the open air has less resonant acoustics than an auditorium or even a stadium. Still, the cheers came up unmistakeably at all the right moments, in the speech as throughout the event and I was glad to add my voice to the strain.

Vice-President Biden was sworn in, then the newest President, who gave a few remarks, as well.
Radio reports consistently mentioned that the crowd assembled was in good spirits, which aligns with my experience. That said, the one thing that could be counted on to raise their ire was seeing George W. Bush on screen or hearing mention made of his name. At first I wanted to join in, but as I thought back to someone's commentary about Inauguration 2005, that it was supposed to celebrate our country, not the triumph of one party or another, I thought it more proper to do as I would have had done four years ago.

After the President's inaugural address, many people started to wander away, but I wanted to stay around, having heard on C-SPAN or NPR that the Marine One-style helicopter that would ferry "43" away was already parked on the west front of the Capitol. So I stayed tuned in, listening to the narration and eventually found a screen erected by MSNBC showing their coverage, and saw the Obamas and the Bushes headed together out the Capitol's west front. Bush aboard, I waited as the chopper came to life, and after what seemed like an eternity from when it lifted from the ground on the MSNBC screen, I saw it emerge above the Senate chamber on the north side of the Capitol, and come straight down the Mall, taking a traditional final spin over the White House before turning for the Andrews Air Force Base and the final Bush presidential exit from Washington.

There's that above-referenced cinéma vérité moment. The crowd was slowly but steadily dispersing as soon as the President finished his Inaugural address, affording me the chance to get up closer to the MSNBC screen and pseudo-trailer studio.

Around me, people chanted "Na na na, hey hey, goodbye!" and on another day I might have joined them. But on Tuesday, seeing George W. Bush leave office gave me little satisfaction--surprisingly little satisfaction. Maybe if it had been John Kerry taking that presidential oath, four years ago, I would have joined in the revelry of seeing the former president off with a "one-finger salute," as one flier passed out to inaugural attendees exhorted us to do. But as the Obamas carried themselves with dignity--even as the inaugural address effectively repudiated the policy legacy of the Bush years--I thought it fitting that I approach the day with that same attitude of decorum.

MSNBC was filming live, and was swinging a camera on a boom over the crowd outside. My mom tells me I appeared, since I called her to tell her to flip on the TV, and she saw me as it came by. In the studio are Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Eugene Robinson, it looks like, and Keith Olberman, who isn't visible in this view.

A media "fixer" approached me as I was wandering around the Mall, waiting for the crowds to subside, and I obliged in offering a few of my thoughts on the day for an AP video reporter. The guy pulled a raggedy credential out of his pocket to let me join him up in the middle of these media risers.

After all this, I took off, circumnavigating the west side of the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue's parade route. The Metro stations on the south side of the Mall were overwhelmed, so I went the long way around, towards Union Station. On the way, I joined crowds also going around the end of the Capitol Complex, and the mob persuaded some security folks to open up a gate to cross Southeast 1st Street. It seems the area to the south of the Capitol was a staging area for some of the parade, and they had a corridor for the floats and people to make it through to Pennsylvania Avenue, where they would proceed up to the White House. So while my fellow pedestrians and I were waiting for an appropriate break in the traffic, we saw a bit of the parade going through, including historic military re-enactors (in Revolutionary-, Civil War- and World War I-era costume, some crazy female equestrian flag display group, and Senator Jon Tester and Governor Brian Schweitzer, both of of Montana.

I waited for the inaugural luncheon to finish and hopefully see the presidential party head up towards the White House, but couldn't wait for that: as it happened, Union Station was mobbed amd I had to walk most of the way to Dupont Circle, and then I got a bus out to the Palisades , finally making it back to bed for a quick nap before the evening's festivities.

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