He had always acted as if men were masters of forces, as if all things were possible for men determined in purpose and clear in thought—even the Presidency.
This perhaps is what he had best learned in 1960—even though he called his own victory a “miracle.” This was what he would have to cherish alone in the White House, on which an impatient world waited for miracles.
The miracles had to come soon. It was a country of stock-market losses and Iraqi casualty reports and financially folding newspapers and evicted squatter families hiding in corners of bedrooms that had once been their own. It was a country in which gas prices skyrocketed and plummeted and then crept back upward, and where green was no longer a color but a ubiquitous buzzword for an elusive lifestyle. Older workers saw careers end, and young ones could find nowhere to begin. Economies across the ocean were consuming and producing and growing savvy enough to challenge the longstanding bully on the global playground.
It was no longer a country with an empty figurehead. It was not a country in need of a coup. It was the United States of America in the frigid first month of 2009, and the Bush era was over and the Obama one beginning and a vocal cult of the president-elect believed that the change was real and that the empty rhetoric of the past eight years was finished, and all of the good organizers and canvassers and celebrities were waiting for new direction. All that seemed clear was that we had veered far off track and needed an unwavering compass to lead us out of the woods, and because it was a turning point I drove with some friends to D.C.
D.C. was where the expectations were piling up. D.C. was where the futureless college kids and proud middle-class black ladies and validated crunchy-granola high-school teachers were flocking to see history being made. When I went to D.C. in that frigid first month of 2009 I did not even know what I expected to see, and so I just settled in for half a week with a few friends.
Everyone feels a little guilty about spending the past two nights and days drinking and lazing so Monday we are downtown with the pretense of scoping out a spot for the ceremony. We take the Metro in a few stops and slowly make our way to the Mall.
If Boston is the Athens of America, then D.C. is its Rome. Its leaders meet here in marble halls, buildings literally filled with history line its cobblestone streets, and it hosts some of the last populist pageantry over which Americans will still allow themselves to get flag-waving excited.
This afternoon, it looks the part. Walking past the National Archives, and all the other buildings and hotels along the Inaugural parade route whose angles have been mapped for potential sniper spots and then mostly sealed off, I catch myself as in Rome distracted by sunlight. It makes pale bricks glow warm and gold even though it’s 10 degrees outside.
And D.C., with its Edward-Hopper-like lights and darks, stands with the self-importance of a modern-day Rome: a place where great things are about to, and must, happen. Millions have come to see great things happen. But then any city of white buildings anywhere is nothing more than a blank canvas for the sun. It’s 3 p.m., and the Mall is teeming with aimless wanderers and photo-ops and women crowding Anderson Cooper as he tries to tape his show.
We’re taking a token tourist jumping picture a mile in front of the Washington Monument, when—on three—a middle-aged man wearing aviator sunglasses and a fur trapper hat sneaks into the background.
We run over to check out the picture. When we notice him in it (we’ll end up keeping this one) he introduces himself as Gary Ward and pulls a bent notebook from the front zipper of his creased brown leather bomber jacket.
“You guys all wanna sign? I’m trying to get a million, and then maybe I’ll sell it on eBay. Or maybe I won’t.”
He doesn’t know why he wants it, other than to have it. We don’t know why we’re here, other than to be here.
|Me and all my friends
We’re all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing
And there’s no way we ever could
is a song John Mayer sings.
A post-it note listing Gary’s full name and home address is taped down on all four sides inside the cover, requesting politely in block letters that if it gets passed around would the last person please send it back to him. We sign it.
We spend another couple of hours playing (literal) freeze-tag on the brown grass. We take pictures for other people. Nothing is happening, but everyone is here. Maybe just walking off our excitement like hyperactive dogs before guests arrive. It will all happen tomorrow, though we’re not sure what it is.
I wonder (not aloud) if the 999,978th person to whom Gary’s notebook passes in a crowd will bother to send it back. I think I’m No. 52; I will never find out.
Monday is the fourth night that we are piled on and around the couch with blankets and pizza boxes in our host’s big white-windowframed brick house a mile from the city center, and tonight we are watching Gladiator.
Here is the new emperor Commodus, triumphantly charioting himself through Rome so his subjects can adore their new leader. Here are the well-wishers and the hecklers, the horns and the horses. Here are the senators waiting resignedly on the steps at the top of the parade route for the arrival of the man who will disregard them daily.
The fire is warm and Eliot is rubbing my neck and I am nodding off, but the hushed conversation between two old senators catches my ear. One admits the political astuteness of the ascending leader in displaying himself as a god, to entertain.
Falco: You really think people are going to be seduced by that?
Gracchus: I think he knows what Rome is: Rome is the mob.
Long enough before seven Tuesday morning to still be almost Monday night, I am walk-running at destination pace under the still-bright moon with ten thousand others. Overnight, people poured into the city like a million skittles out of a bag, blue parkas and red backpacks and orange hats rolling into and around each other. This is chaos. People who have finagled tickets are trying to find the right-color gate, and the rest need to get their bearings in the sea of people to even find the Mall.
A police officer walks backward by us in the street, rolling out yellow caution tape at waist level above the center line, I think only in a symbolic try at creating some order. A 200-pound man wanders into the unwinding plastic band, and we watch it become a giant slingshot the officer uses to fling him back to the sidewalk. “Don’t cross my tape!” she sasses, and keeps on unrolling.
Someone my size would have been launched clear down the block. We walk fast and then break into a run alongside the cop, trying to beat the snaking tape so we can cross to the other side and find a different gate. I wonder if I am still dreaming.
The windows high above us at 6th and E street are the same quiet, dip-dyed blue as the sky, whose Crayola name would probably include “deep” or “Ursula” or “mystery.”
Some guy runs into me with his bike and nicks my heel. I start to apologize.
“This is what an exodus feels like,” Eliot says.
The biker picks up his head, hitches his back foot on a pedal and clicks past.
“No,” Cassie says. “It’s a pilgrimage!”
I wonder what the pilgrimage is really about.
“I dunno.” She tries out a word she’s been told. “Change?” We’ve made our way to the 3rd street tunnel and are walking with hundreds of others in the dark along the four-lane road that (I think) goes under the Mall. It’s louder than an elementary-school cafeteria on Friday. Mike can’t decide if it’s fun or scary. “This looks like 28 Days Later,” he says.
We link arms like the band in the Wizard of Oz, and chant with everyone else. O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma! People are taking cellphone videos and disposable-camera pictures and high-fiving us as they run by. This happens all over the weekend: putting aside tension, confusion and suspicion in favor of we’re-all-in-this-together. It works most times.
The honor of your presence
is requested at the ceremonies attending the
Inauguration of the
President and Vice President
of the United States
The Capitol of the United States of America
City of Washington
is what my ticket says.
Ten minutes to eight and the sun is finally up and I have split from the serfs, who have gone to pack in a mile back near one of nine jumbotrons. I am squished at what I’m hoping is a gate for bearers of Silver tickets. There are thousands of us. We all think we’re more important than we are. When our tickets and brochures arrived in the mail in December, my mother (who had put our names in the Vermont senators’ lottery, in which the odds were pretty good) was appalled to see that we wouldn’t be provided chairs. The honor of our presence was requested, by Dianne Feinstein!—surely we must get special treatment.
I’m standing here after running around and a few times into the grey cement Jenga stack of a building called Hubert Humphrey three times. The name means nothing to me but the building is uglier than Boston’s City Hall, and I think my sister actually knows where to find me if I say the name enough times authoritatively on the phone. Hubert Humphrey is better than the only coordinates my ticket offers—The Capitol of the United States of America, City of Washington—that’s where I am.
A male voice ahead of me is resigned. “This is madness.”
A female one to his left is amused. “But it’s a wonderful sort of madness.”
Twenty minutes later, a tall guy a little older than myself is asking where I come from. He lives in D.C. “They definitely hired these cops just for today.” These guys are way too nice, he says. They’re telling stories.
Another 15 minutes pass. We inch forward. I ask the tall local if he sees a girl up ahead who looks like me, only with dyed red hair and probably wearing a trenchcoat that looks like vomited pea soup. He waves at her; he’s found my sister. We all walk through the gates, and the funny cops don’t even check our tickets.
|So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change
Caroline and I have been trading off her black knit hat and dancing around each other in circles blowing on our gloved hands for three hours by the time the ceremony starts. The temperature hasn’t reached 12 degrees. One guy is still in a tree.
Introductions and welcomes, an orchestra and then a choir.
We’re here. “It” is happening.
His voice echoing for a mile down the Mall, sounding impossibly more epic, President Barack Obama explains what everyone is doing here. We are here because we all feel the same “sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.”
In his nod to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan lies the heart of it. They are fighting for the same reason the million people made this trip to this ceremony: out of “a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.” A picture-perfect historical moment. This is what everyone has come for. An attractive young black couple stands next to us, well-dressed and happy. They take turns bouncing their little boy in their arms, and holding him up so he can see above the crowd. If I ran a newspaper, I think, those two and their adorable kid would be front and center in a page-one Inauguration spread tomorrow.
Toward the end of the ceremony, a drawn but excited man with a press pass and a heavy camera makes his way over and asks. “Can I take your picture?”
They smile big, and wait for the snap. Such gold could not possibly have gone unnoticed today, because everyone is desperately looking for it.
A collection of bodies and ideas of any kind inherently walks a fine line. A crowd can start determined and exciting, but full as it is of humans, it can quickly regress into a threatening animal mob.
My parents and sister leave me to catch the train out of the city before the ceremony ends. I walk exhausted and frozen by myself for two hours, from 3rd street to 18th, against an unending parade of tired masses heading to the Metro stop behind me. A few times I fear I’m actually moving backward—that treadmill feeling you get trying to walk out of the ocean when the water is rushing back out, and you start to panic because you aren’t getting anywhere.
Finally I’m only a few blocks from the coffee shop where Anna waits. Rounding a corner, I bump into somebody stopped on the sidewalk. A hundred people are corralled here behind ropes to the front and sides, and more are jamming in behind me by the second. Empty tour buses keep passing in front of us. The people are getting impatient. The police aren’t explaining.
The police let nobody move, not even backward or out to the sides and definitely not under the ropes, for a 15 minutes that seems like an hour. Now, somebody recognizes the imbalance in numbers, and yells, “Just start walking!” Another yells “Push!”
I do not want to start walking; I can wait. But I have no choice. I am being carried along, an unwilling molecule in one solid mass affronting a group of unimpressed and armed police officers. Inescapable forward motion. Shoving. Shouting. “Let us walk! Let us walk.”
We’re full in the middle of the intersection when, in a fit of residual political righteousness, somebody takes it too far: We Shall Overcome catches and carries forth from the rear of the mob. I wonder who thinks the great civil rights anthem, which has to some extent even been validated today by a black man taking the oath of the world’s highest office, applies to this temporary struggle. Someone heard those words once, and is trying them out, a resounding failure. I just want to get out of here; I can’t breathe.
Finally they let us go. I never get an explanation, but I run to Anna, who wonders why I’m so shaken. We sneak into a back Metro entrance and escape the city center.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observed in October the similarities between the American experience and the Roman one, both civilizations that “tumbled into the trap of becoming overleveraged empire hussies.”
“With modernity crumbling,” she wrote, “our thoughts turn to antiquity.”
My thoughts were on antiquity for the duration of the D.C. trip. At first, it was the regal, cinematic Rome of the movies, a symbol of the populace and triumph of political order and lofty will. But by the end, it was the territory of the mob. Change has come to us, and we say we have sought it and rejoice when we see its symbols, but even over centuries, we do not change. We wait, we seek meaning. We pray for miracles. We find symbols and are satisfied. Rome is the mob.