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The Obama Inauguration

Posted by William Fennie at Jan 24, 2009 10:40 PM |

Unlike everyone else in America, our goal was to avoid downtown Washington DC on the big day.

The Obama Inauguration

AP photo by Susan Walsh

Alana and I witnessed the historic event by way of that so-20th-century technology, the television. We thought about using the computer, just to keep with the spirit of things, but the TV screen was bigger.

The commentators on the channel we watched (PBS - Lehrer News Hour) reminded us several times that the space we were viewing, running from the foot of the Capital steps, past the reflecting pool, and all the way to the Washington Monument, represented "14 long blocks." I've walked it and can confirm it's quite a hike.

Friends who made the trek into town via Metro told stories of taking over an hour to exit the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station, all the while packed like sardines with thousands of people they didn't know. "You couldn't even reach up to unbutton your coat," one of them told me. Astonishingly, nobody seemed to mind. From time to time somebody would shout, "Give me an O ! . . ." and the whole place would rock the walls with a resounding cheer. "There's no way I can describe what it felt like to be there," my friend said. Total strangers being thoughtful and helpful . . . it was a kind of spirit this town hasn't seen for a long time.

Pundits of every stripe are already doing everything they can to inject "reality" into this scene, bringing up all the problems faced by the new administration and the country. Nonetheless, to a person they admit that what they witnessed on January 20, 2009, was just plain astonishing. One of them, Mark Shields, a syndicated columnist identified with the political left, compared it with the joy expressed at the end of World War Two, adding that, for him, this event was even more remarkable. Neither was it lost on conservative icon Charles Krauthammer, one of the staunchest defenders of George W. Bush's foreign policy. I will have to retrieve his remarkable summation delivered on Inside Washington on Friday, January 23 to get the exact quote, but I turned to Alana and said, "This is Krauthammer !" (Here's a link to his posted remarks about the inaugural.)

Another event resounded in its day with the same kind of astonishing, unexpected comity : the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, August, 1969. Like Woodstock, Obama's inauguration will be an indelible memory for anyone who was there; it represents a cultural marker that defines a generation. Unlike Woodstock, you didn't have to be stoned to participate, and many more people of older generations found meaning in the event. We are dealing with an archetypal event in the collective consciousness, and Krauthammer's cautious assessment may be more indicative of its paradoxical character than those of true believers. 

Jim Renza works at the Smithsonian and was on hand in one of the museums for the whole event. Alana and I will see him tomorrow and get another view of how it looked in-situ.