Thursday, January 22, 2009

The conclusion

This is the last entry in our blog of "Inaugural Afoot," posted mainly by Chris Bessler of Sandpoint, Idaho, with one key post by wife Sandy (that's her above with the button man). It describes the experiences of our party of four Sandpointers afoot at the inauguration of Barack Obama. We're all home now, the trip is concluded and so is this blog.

If you want to read the whole thing as a chronological narrative of the trip with its ups and downs, start with "Before the first step is the idea" posting at the bottom of the convenience menu at right. Click that link. And then read your way up the list. The whole journal comprises 17 posts, some short and others too long.

Or to see just the entries about Inauguration Day itself, scroll to the bottom of this page and read your way up.

If you haven’t already, read Obama’s inaugural address. I’ve read some critics in the last couple days panning it as not lofty or eloquent. I disagree. In fact, as skilled an orator he is – and even having stood there to see him deliver it in person – his address is even more impressive as written prose that resonates on fundamental human values, on American ideals and on the present challenges that we face as a people. Click to read it.

And you critics among the readers: I’d be interested to know what parts of his address you disagree with. Do post and say.

Although, I have this picture in my mind still fresh from January 20, and the remarkable sight two miles down the mall. Having been in that sea of a million-plus optimistic, happy, hopeful Americans, something Obama said in his address sticks out: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them."

The Day After

We became tourists again on Wednesday, the Day After the big event. We weren't due to head back to Sandpoint till Thursday. So while most of the huge crowds that had traveled to DC for the inauguration were returning home (in what were now hugely crowded airports; news reports said bottlenecks at check-in caused many to miss their flights and face hours of delays) we slept in but managed to get back down to the capital before noon. We visited Congressman Minnick’s office to get passes to the House of Representatives gallery; we were lucky enough to catch the congressman in his office and thank him again for providing those purple tickets to get into the inauguration. That’s Walt above, with Chris, Nate, Sandy and Autry.

In the House we watched as a handful of congressmen debated a series of amendments to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP; that’s the massive $700 billion bailout bill for the financial markets, of which the second half has still to be approved. The congressmen were mainly arguing about how to impose more accountability on the recipients of the federal largess.

Afterwards we out into another sunny but cold day and cruised by the spots on the mall we had made it to the previous day. The second photo above is the intersection of First and Louisiana outside the purple gate, at roughly the same spot where we had been squeezed in the mass of people the day before. It was hard to envision that huge crowd. Click to compare that photo.

We walked by the Newseum, where they displayed a score of the morning’s newspaper front pages from around the country, comparing how they covered the inauguration. We visited the Smithsonian’s art and natural history museums and caught a meal.

Most outstanding, though, on this Day After were the conversations with the others who had experienced the inauguration, reliving the events and perspectives. We talked to several others who had held those prized tickets but never made it in due to the crowds; one of those included a staffer in Minnick’s office. The Washington Post report on the problem estimated 4,000 ticket holders were turned back but that estimate is low. Reviewing my photos and other photos, there were 3000-4000 at our gate alone; blue and silver areas had problems as well. We heard that the son of our Bonners Ferry friend Ed Katz got stopped and trapped in one of the tunnels leading to our purple gate; there’s already a Facebook page with posts from more than 1500 posters for the Purple Tunnel of Doom. The best overview I've found is a Huffington Post reconstruction of what went wrong.

More often, though, the conversations with the others there were about the power of the event and the feelings it brought out.

Finally after dark, for the last hurrah of our trip, we visited what is surely the most moving monument on the mall, the Lincoln Memorial. Even after 7 p.m. in freezing temperatures, there were a few hundred people there – doing as we were, connecting the dots from the legacy of our greatest president to this new president.

As one fellow at the inauguration said, looking at that sea of humanity stretching down the mall, “Everyone here has their own story.” All those people brought their stories together to witness the turning point that Obama's swearing in represented. Everyone had a different reason to be there and feel affected by the event depending on their story. But I'm pretty sure one thing almost all of those 1 million or 2 million people felt was a shared joy. And as Sandy said, that's maybe the biggest thing we brought away from being witness to the history: The sensations of being in an immense crowd of joyful people. We were just droplets, in a sea of happy people.

Here’s a remarkable fact: The official crowd estimated (derived from a density analysis of a satellite photo, but it's just a guess) puts the crowd at 1.8 million. Yet the police and secret service made not a single arrest that day, despite extremely stressful conditions in some areas. There were no serious injuries and no one died. It seems statistically impossible that 1.8 million people could gather without an arrest, a bad injury, an accidental death.

Or maybe, it speaks to what good will and common optimism can produce. Maybe it can make some impossible things possible. Maybe this new president really can help us turn a new page, to pull together, to recognize our differences but set them aside to find solutions to our common and pressing problems. That's the hope I have.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural day end game

Fifth of five entries on Inauguration Day; scroll down to the post "Inauguration Day begins" to start the chronological narrative of the day.

On the tail of the ceremony, former President Bush's helicopter lifted off from the nearby White House and carried him and family off for their return to Texas. The final page-turn of the story.

Our group reassembled after the adventure of the Line Experience. Nate had made it in; Autry never got past the frozen spot in the crowd, stranded with a thousand or two other ticket holders. They were of course pretty unhappy; all who went through that crush was pretty unhappy. The record crowds (early estimates have it between 1.2 and 2 million) in most part seem to have been handled effectively, but particular entry gates and choke points were inadequate. It was dangerous, in fact. The only thing we can take away from it was, it was an Experience. And inside the gates or outside, we were there.

Faced with large lines waiting to get into the parade route, and no assurance there would be a place to see anything, we gave into cold and fatigue and grabbed the metro back to our hotel.

We have one more day in DC. We have a few ideas of things to do tomorrow; we'll see how those go with some possibly lingering crowds.

The Inauguration

Once inside the barricades, I follow the now-dispersed flow of people toward the center of the mall. Aretha Franklin is singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" as I find a couple of excellent spots to view the proceedings with magnificent views up to the inaugural dais (top and second photo) and behind down the mall to the Washington monument (third photo). There's actually a fair amount of room in this area (thanks to the sheer ineptitude in crowd management that left some thousands of ticket holders locked out). I try dialing my party but give up when the connection won't go through. So I give up to take in the moment.

The crowd is alternately hushed and elated. There's a heavy sense of the historical moment. When Obama repeats the short oath of office a giant cheer goes up, and travels like a wave down the massive crowd on the mall. When he takes the podium for his inaugural address (second photo above; click to see the blowup and you can see his small figure at the podium) he draws cheer after cheer; many are crying, and not just the black people. Everyone is touched that our country has made this milestone.

Obama's talk combines words about the current political challenges we face with a reminder of the American values and virtues that have made our country great; he really makes only small note of the history of this occasion, in which a black man is sworn in as president on the steps that black slaves built 200 years ago. (Click to read the complete text .)

Aside from the stirring words, the sights in both directions add to the emotion. Looking forward to the capitol, decked with national colors on a sunny day; and behind, down the capital mall at the million-plus mass of people, is a bit akin to beholding a natural phenomenon -- say, the Grand Canyon from a high vantage point, or Glacier Park at sunset. You take it in but you can't fully process it. You just bask in it.

If the act of coming across the country to this event has felt a bit like a pilgrimage, the moments just afterward feel like a combination of a graduation ceremony for our country, and a marriage between the voters and a new administration. After the ceremony has ended, people mill around, whoop, laugh and cry and pose for photos; that's Sandy at bottom, after coming across the kids that had been standing in line just ahead of us. They're bonded in the shared experience and the adversity of the Line Experience.

Many people head out directly, but others just wait to bask in the sights and feelings.

(Concludes next post above)

The Line Experience, 9 a.m.-noon

After 9 a.m. it's clearly gotten ridiculous. The crowds are huge. We are packed tightly against each other. People trying to cross through what might be the line squeeze through miserably. There is no, zero, crowd control; all the thought seems to have gone into controlling the crowds inside the barricades around the mall. There is absolutely no one to organize the crowds on our side. The question/comment goes through the crowd frequently: Do you all have purple tickets? Everyone does. It defies logic that they would issue too many tickets for the area we're ticketed for, so we continue on the faith that this line will move and they'll start getting us in. Yet the line/crowd barely moves; when we do surge forward a step, it seems to be a compression move that just squeezes the crowd ahead of us. It just doesn't seem anyone is getting admitted yet.

The line/street full of people makes a bend around the corner; that's the corner above with the crowd massed at least a couple blocks on either side of the corner. The orderly line that started the morning still has kind of a discernible shape swinging around the outside while the inside of the corner is filled with people recently arrived. At around 9:30 a.m. we finally determine we need to move to the inside and take a straighter line. We move up and push into an area that is still swinging around to where we can now see there is indeed a gate. I'm tall enough to see, barely, that people are being admitted. But our area of the crowd seems not to move at all. People start chanting "Let us in."

Nate hits an emergency need to pee and has to worm out of our part of the crowd and away from the gate. But he gets a different view and determines that the area of crowd that is more directly in front of the gate is actually moving forward; he's found the current in the river. He manages to get through to us by cell phone -- service is intermittent because bandwidth is overloaded -- to say he's joining that part of the crowd. Meantime Autry has fallen 20 or 30 feet behind us in the crowd, caught in an eddy. Sandy and I signal to Autry and move out of our area, and get out by being assertive. We move around and at about 11: 25 a.m. dive into a new part of the crowd, no closer to the gate but now directly before it. We finally see a cop, one cop, who is telling people the gate closes at noon and they should retreat and skip the swearing in, and try their luck getting on the parade route instead. It seems hopeless now but we push ahead and catch a bit of the current. When Sandy and I squeeze through the gate with the mass pushing behind us, it's about 11:55 a.m. But we get separated going through the metal detectors. By the time I clear Sandy's not in sight and the invocation is under way. But we are both, finally, into the mall. I don't know Autry's fate. I can't raise him or Nate or Sandy on the cell.

(Continues next post above)

The Line Experience (5 a.m.-9 a.m.)

The first couple hours of the Line Experience are decent. But cold; 23 degrees with a wind chill that takes it to 12 degrees. By 6 a.m. the line behind us stretches down and around the block, out of sight. But still an orderly line about 3-4 people wide along the side of the street. Meantime, an endless stream of people who have discharged from a nearby metro, thousands of them, are trooping by, down the block past us, most headed to the open, no-ticket-required areas on the capital mall.

We trade off holding our spot in line to take fast walks to warm up. It's still a party. Lots of high-fives from our Ohio friend to passers by.

By 7-7:30 the crowd has filled in considerably. The thousands walking down the block are backing up, due in part because there is inexplicably a bus parked to block most of exit at the end of the block and due to blocks-long crowds at other entry points to the mall. The line we're waiting in has thickened considerably. People who are just arriving start trying to stop up near us and cut in front of us. The folks who have been in line for 2 or 3 hours already chastise them and try to usher them back. But the street now is mainly filled.

About 8 cops show up and huddle off to the side of our position to take instructions. We think they're there for crowd control. After a half hour they do a conga line, hands on shoulders, to get through the crowds and disappear.

By 8 we're now packed solid across the street. We still think we're in the main line though, the folks who got there early still assuming they will get an advantage at getting in. The gate is supposed to open at 8. We see almost no movement for the next hour. We can't see far enough ahead to determine if anyone is entering yet; first picture above is where we're going. We're now completely packed in; second shot is us enjoying the moment (because we like people so much). The one good thing is, the body heat warms us up.

(Continues next post above)

Inauguration Day begins: 3 a.m.

It's inauguration day, day of the big show. I'm near the end of it now, looking back and pretty tired. It's been, as I anticipated in my first blog a week ago, an Experience. Make that, a collection of experiences -- some really exhilarating (as expected) and some really unfortunate (as feared possible) but collectively, an Experience.

I'm breaking it up into a series of posts. Read the next few from this post up, to get the chronological tale.

The alarm goes off at 3 a.m. because we want to catch one of the first metro trains going into DC at 4 a.m. The station is already loading up but we're ahead of the big crush. We arrive in downtown and speedwalk to the entrance gate for the purple standing area tickets (won with luck and great persistence in appealing to our new congressman Walt Minnick, beginning the day after the election). The tickets are to a great area of the capital mall; just behind the seated guests, relatively close up to the capitol steps and inaugural dais considering the mass of people will be behind us in the capital mall stretching almost two miles back.

We get to the purple gate about 5 a.m. There's an orderly line 3-4 people wide begun at the gate, which is to open at 8 a.m. We're about 500 people back -- a good spot, since our "purple" area can probably handle 10,000.

It's real cold but we've dressed heavily. Despite the cold and the hour, it's a party mood with our neighbors in line. We're the early arrivers, going to see the new president sworn in (that us four in the picture at top early in our Line Experience, Chris, Sandy, Nate, Autry). The Jewish kid from Ohio in line in front of us sells an extra copy of his "My President is Black" shirt to the black gal from Georgia in front of him. It's a party. It's darn cold.

(Continues next post above ...)