View From the Mall

My brother-in-law, Stephen Davis, a Senior Fellow at Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance at the Yale School of Management, took my nephew, his son, to watch history in the making. He’s a beautiful writer, and his story, below, made me feel as though I were there, minus the cold and aching feet.
Maybe it was the Metro official at Capital South station who best captured the spirit of Washington, DC on its biggest inauguration day. Gabriel and I had traveled overnight on a bus from Connecticut, arriving in the frigid, early morning dark Tuesday about 10 subway stops from our destination on the Mall. The ride down the Red Line to Metro Center was easy, and the switch there to the Blue Line was not quite as lengthy as I’d feared crowds could make it. But Capital South was utterly mobbed. Wall to wall, like I had never seen a station. You could imagine that the slightest sense of panic could have ignited instant catastrophe. But the station manager, sensing the same, decided to get on the loudspeaker with a message. “Keep it moving!” she yelled. “Keep it moving!” And suddenly the crowd did something unexpected. We all started at once doing responsive yelling in a kind of cheerful rap rhythm. “Keep it moving…keep it moving…keep it moving…right through the gate!” The manager was delighted. “Yes we can!” she shouted. Everyone still crunched together, uncomfortable still, but smiling.
We wound up standing on our feet for some eight hours in the freezing cold, but perhaps this was some minor personal reminder of the wait the country has had, and African Americans in particular have had, for the glorious moment that struck at noon at the Capitol. The ivory color of the Capital dome stood looking washed, almost floating, against the blue sky. On the ground, things were much less weightless. We found ourselves, once out of the Metro, scrabbling with a huge crowd down Capital Hill across garden landscapes that were clearly not for pedestrians. But there was little direction or signage, so one just went in what seemed like the right direction. The tide of walkers finally eddied at Third Street, and our aim was the Silver Ticket section. But it took a good two hours to travel the 50 feet we needed to go. No one of authority seemed to be around; at some point the crowd took up a kind of existential chant: “What’s going on?” “What’s going on?” Just like in normal life, no particular answer emerged, so we just pressed forward. And then suddenly, for no apparent reason, the bottleneck broke and we were in Silver, being channeled through security tents. From the TV, I’m told, the event looked quite orderly. From our perspective, it wasn’t at all. Even the security was light. My bag was allowed in with a cursory look. There were no metal detectors. No one asked for an ID or even checked tickets. Metro stations were closed when they were meant to be open; roads were blocked when theyadvance reports said they’d be clear; and authorities seemed to have entirely inaccurate advice about goings-on. Everyone was friendly, though. And at a certain point I began to wonder if the confusion was maybe all the more effective in deterring evil-doers than some clockwork operation.
Our place on the Mall was right behind the Capitol Reflecting Pool, and we had a good view of everything, except for a tree. A Jumbotron was nearby, so we could catch close-up views there, and if we couldn’t quite hear something the screen provided helpful text of any remarks, or it would read “music” if a band was playing. These translations were mostly accurate, but sometimes the unseen masters behind them seemed to have an agenda. For instance, three figures–Bush, Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman–elicited hearty and sustained boos from the entire Mall when they appeared. The Jumbotron, in each case, read: “applause.”
The Mall was packed where we were with people from all over the country. We had seen people in wheelchairs earlier, but also many were dressed in their Sunday finest for this day. And they were in such spirits! Many of us, myself included, were still not really believing what was to happen. It was something of a party, but different. People were happy on the outside, but also resolute, emotional and patriotic without irony or sarcasm. And they wore their highly-informed partisan stripes with pride. “I wonder if Sarah Palin is here,” Gabriel asked. “She doesn’t have to be,” responded a full-throated Mall-mate. “She can probably see Washington from her house!” When Newt Gingrich was announced with his wife, another Mall-mate said “You mean the one he left in the hospital?” I also began to appreciate the power Michele Obama will have. The women around us gasped when they saw her, commented on her dress and her children, and were clearly unabashed fans.
Obama’s swearing in was so fast, but so powerful on the Mall. I was delighted that Gabriel was there to join with the nation in so unique a way. In some ways it felt like a family gathering with people you didn’t know. In another way, there was something so deeply ancient about this. I was thinking about Roman generals or Greek politicians speaking to their crowds. Here was America, two million of us listening in almost unnatural silence as Obama delivered his address; guffawing at comments (such as when the pompous-sounding MC, after finishing his introductions, said “Ladies and Gentlemen, take your seats”–about 1.95 million of the citizens there could barely move their arms, let alone take a seat!); screaming for heroes like Al Gore, Ted Kennedy or Bill Clinton; and crying as the noon hour registered a new day for the country.
Perhaps the eeriest moment came when the Jumbotron let us know that Bush was leaving the Capitol. Suddenly the iconic site of Marine One, the president’s helicopter, rose from beyond the dome and headed our way. The pilot circled low around the Mall a couple of times, the rotors beating the only sound in the expanse. Earlier, when Bush had been introduced, the boos had preceded a song: “Nah nah nah nah, nah, nah nah nah, hey hey hey, GOODBYE!” (Jumbotron: “applause”). Now there was a kind of resentful silence as people waved, and the ex-president flew overhead. He was looking at us; what must he be thinking?
Now our goal was to get across Pennsylvania Avenue to visit a reception to watch the parade. But it wasn’t to be. The route across the Avenue was sealed, so we marched back up to Capitol Hill to the only way through–the Third St. Tunnel. Now as a former DC resident, I just didn’t remember such a walkway. But when I saw it, I understood. This is a highway tunnel that burrows under the front of the Capitol. But now cars were banned, and people had the green light. It looked like some science fiction, post-nuclear scene–thousands walking an empty six lane turnpike into the darkness.
We emerged out of the security perimeter and into the commercial bustle of ObamaMart. On the Mall there had been no vendors, either of souvenirs or food or anything. Here, every sidewalk was dotted with T-shirt sellers and button stalls. Obama hand puppets? Sure. Sam Adams Obama beer? Why not.
When we headed to the law firm’s building to watch the parade, we discovered that we’d have to re-enter the security zone–and join a line that looked an hour or two long. Our legs wasted no time vetoing that idea and carrying us in the direction of some warm coffee and seats. Then it was off to the chaos of Union Station, where soldiers were keeping people away with the news that all trains were being held for two hours. In fact, we squirreled around to the station anyway and found our train departing smack on time. By 11pm, we were home in Connecticut.
This was history we could feel in our tired bones, history earned. And it seemed in some ways like closure. Many readers will remember when we saw Obama give one of his first big rally speeches (maybe the one memorialized in his “Yes We Can” music video) in New Hampshire one year and two weeks earlier. Here was the end of that improbable campaign journey, though the beginning of a fresh new age for America.
“Keep it moving….right through the gate!”

Recent Comments

  • Terry
    January 22, 2009 - 8:07 am · Reply

    Wow. Your brother is a fabulous writer. I could feel the cold, the crush, and the awe just sitting at my little ol’ desk.

  • John Nez
    January 22, 2009 - 11:22 am · Reply

    Great story. I heard about lots of people who traveled all the way from Seattle and only got to see the jumbotron. But then I know other people (from New Hampshire) who got to meet Obama in person.

    Now, if all just works the way we hope it will.

    By the way, that video of Pea Soup for the Soul (interviewing yourself) is JUST TOO CLEVER!


  • June Sobel
    January 22, 2009 - 12:04 pm · Reply

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful account of that historic day. I came to this from Kerry Madden’s facebook post.

  • janeyolen
    January 22, 2009 - 2:06 pm · Reply

    They weren’t to know, but a 68-year-old woman fell onto the tracks and stopped trains coming and going for up to two hours. She was taken to the hospital with bruises and scratches as far as I know. But otherwise fine.

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