A report from Washington DC on Inauguration day, when Americans found a reason to be proud once again. And boy, did they show it!
The largest party on earth is over, and what a party it was.
Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people of every age, every colour and every social echelon queued and packed onto the vast lawn in front of Washington DC’s Capitol building to complete the experience that was truly a 'once in a lifetime'.
No rock star would have drawn such an eclectic audience; no other political leader has in the past; no Pope nor other religious leader could have enthused so many from so vast a variety of backgrounds.
Next to me a young African American woman cajoled her father who was tiring of the wait to hold on and make it to the gate because this would never happen again. She reminded him of the obvious, “there is only ever one first black American President”. While he may well take the oath of office for a second time (or, a third time), that just won’t be the same. They and countless others persevered.
It’s a peculiar thing, crowd behaviour, particularly in America where no-one seems hesitant to enquire as to who you are or where you hail from.
What made Inauguration day so different was how surprised American inquisitors were when they learned individuals from other countries – in US speak ‘aliens’ – would bother to come to Washington specifically to witness the inauguration of this young African American.
Surely they knew by then the world had drunk the Kool-Aid.
Americans are basking in a new found ability to once again proclaim pride in being just that, American. The presence of non-Americans joining in the celebration seemed to reinforce such pride, as if it was confirmation the world was welcoming them back. My new best friends in the crowd seemed truly chuffed – and predictably expressive – that the change we bore witness to really mattered outside US borders.
Together these ordinary, everyday people constituted a sea of humanity that clearly gave Obama a jolt when he walked out to face them, stretching as they did from the Capitol all the way back to the Lincoln Memorial. It was a spectacle so overwhelming that even Steven Spielberg swore he’d never be brave enough to recreate it in film.
There were elderly African Americans who had lived through segregation. They stood silently with tears streaming down their solemn but radiant faces. They were tears of joy and disbelief that they would live to see the day. There were young black youths bedecked in skull and cross bone-patterned hoodies determined to be part of political history. There were small children, one 4-year-old who unabashedly proclaimed herself to be a ‘Barack Obama Princess’ as she licked the icing off a stars and stripes iced cookie. No problem.
This, however, was not just a party for African Americans – although it was easy to view them as the favoured. This was a demonstration of the unity of America. People seemed to randomly announce to no-one in particular that this was a new dawn. “We are one”, to use the President’s election mantra.
A rainbow of nationalities, and no doubt every religion, seemed to be crying and laughing and hugging and waving flags and applauding, often all at the same time. The temperature gauge was well below freezing. The Reflecting Pond was frozen. That didn’t deter.
Crowd humour took over as the hours of waiting ticked by. Short-term friendships were struck as people struggled to deal with the human crush. The adversity of cold and long waits was regularly broken by wags promising hot chocolate and hot hamburgers “out the back” to those further ahead in the queues. “I’ll hold your place” the on-site jokers promised, desperately trying to lure some from the front to relinquish their coveted positions. Yeah right! Everyone laughed while secretly savouring the pleasure a hot chocolate would bring.
Tall people were at a premium as raconteurs of what they could actually see. Obama and co. appeared to most of the crowd, even ticket holders in the ‘front’, as a tiny figure way, way, way in the distance. Save for the jumbotron screens, he really could have been anybody. The voice however was unmistakable.
After the gaffe of the oath (how to mince 35 words), the speech was perfectly pitched towards an audience not searching for flowery rhetoric but for calm resolution and confidence that America is on its way up. After all, there’s no other direction at the moment. President Obama delivered. Re-reading the speech gives confirmation of reason to celebrate, and celebrate America did.
The exception of course is that strange old mouthy guy with an attention deficit issue. I’m talking of Rush Limbaugh, who manages to hold down a job as a radio talkshow host. It is a symbiotic relationship that reveals much about the master and the servant. Anyway, his contribution to his nation’s jubilation was to say of its new President, “I hope he fails”. Good on ya Rush, you are so appropriately named, blood to the head and all that.
So as Limbaugh’s hero, George W. Bush, was waved goodbye (and we know good riddance) by millions in Washington, and Dick Cheney was wheeled off the stage, it was blatantly evocative of the generational change that has taken place this week.
The crowds were not there to say “Well done ‘W’. Good job”. Nor was there a great deal of plausibility found in the story that Cheney was so busy helping the movers that he hurt his back and was duly confined to a wheelchair. Helping the movers! Where is the Tui billboard when you need it?
This was, prima facie, two tired old white guys who’ve brought the house down in a most unattractive fashion exiting stage right.
The next Act opens the curtain on a dynamic, intelligent, serene African American, who as an American friend of mine says so rightly, has no spoon, neither silver nor otherwise in his mouth.
Instead, Barack Hussein Obama has delivered to the country his vision and hope, along with his equally vibrant young family whom America can fall in love with, if they haven’t already.
The contrast could not have been more visual.
The mood could not have been more buoyant.
Partying and dining in the company of White House-connected lawyers, diplomats, political commentators, an exuberant German immigrant, New Yorkers, political statisticians, Americans from all over the country and another Kiwi, reinforced my case that change has come to America.
The morning after saw red, white, and blue balloons snagged in trees that had been whipped bare by the winter winds; the bridges were slowly opening to private cars again; traffic cones were being loaded on the backs of trucks; street cleaners were doing a final sweep; and the city’s over enthusiastic street vendors were shouting out cheap deals on Obamamania souvenirs. The airports were straining under the sheer volume of visitors to Washington heading home, many to begin life under the Obama Presidency, others to watch from afar as the bright young thing picks up the reins.
Sure the party was over, but by early morning news on the day after it was clear this President was wasting no time getting down to the business of sweeping changes to the way the new White House is going to do business.
He probably doesn’t have an actual hangover from his big day, but he’s going to feel like he has awfully soon.