Presidential Inauguration Report
Maryanne in DC
Part I: - You shall go to the ball.
When we left you after the Democratic Convention in Denver, John McCain had just named Sarah Palin as his running mate. Was this a stroke of genius or the final descent into insanity? We watched a TV reporter stop a young couple in the street and ask what they thought of Sarah Palin. â??Who??â? they said. â??Sheâ??s the Governor of Alaska and McCainâ??s pick for Vice Presidentâ?. â??Wowâ? said the young woman, â??that campaignâ??s overâ?. And it was. Thank God for Tina Fey â?? someone should send that girl a very big box of chocolates. Or an ambassadorship.
And donâ??t letâ??s forget the role of the financial crisis. In the space of a few weeks the banking industry collapsed around us and we were treated to the through-the-looking-glass sight of traditional conservatives begging for government oversight, public ownership and mega handouts of the taxpayersâ?? money. This made the morning ritual of googling the overnight polls a lot more interesting, but as the blue tide gradually lapped in from the coasts, the waiting became painful. As John Cleese once said, â??despair I can live with. Itâ??s the hope that kills youâ?.
People we knew, who had not volunteered since their college days in the seventies, were hopping planes to go door to door in Florida and Colorado. New voters were signed up at an incredible rate, but still people talked about the Bradley Effect, said the country was not ready for someone who is literally an African-American to be president. Republican campaign rallies began to get ugly and images of an appalled John McCain trying to control his supporters as they shouted â??Kill him!â? at the mention of Obama, flashed across the TV screens of the nation. We held our breath, did our best and voted.
And on November 4th the world danced in the streets, then dumped all itâ??s problems on the shoulders of one 47-year-old man.
Part II: Itâ??s all about the dress. Really. You can skip this if you are thirsting for the play by play of the inauguration.
Deciding that if we were ever going to witness an inauguration, this should be the one, I set about getting us tickets. Naively thinking that the Very Large Sums of Money we had thrown in the path of the Democratic party might earn us tickets, I emailed various people, organizations and political contacts. Some of these pleas were met with future-check-killing silence but Patti Murray, bless her, came through with tickets to the swearing-in and the ball. Then we were offered a package with tickets to lots of events, and it came with a hotel room! All we had to do was hand over another Very Large Sum of Money. So we wrote the check, told the Senatorâ??s office they could give the free tickets to someone else and started to pack.
When I got an email asking if I had registered my dress for the ball, I dismissed it as a joke. Then I got another query, and after the third I hit the search button and found that yes indeed, you can register your dress. There is a web site where you can post the details of the outfit you are wearing to a particular event, so other guests can check to make sure they will not be wearing the same thing. I guess it would work for guys too, (â??Iâ??ll be wearing a black jacket and pants, white shirt, bow tieâ?). Maybe not. So I checked the list for the Western States Inaugural ball and saw a dismayingly expensive list of designer ball-gowns. I had intended to sew some new sequins on one of the two outfits I bought in Mumbai in 1997. But maybe it was time for my first designer evening dress.
Supported by a friend who said she would enjoy seeing me spend money, I sallied forth to a well-known Seattle store that had designer gowns from wall to wall. It turned out to be quite different from my usual experience in Target or Stella’s thrift store in Issaquah. Sales ladies danced attendance, gowns were whisked from their rails and laid reverently in my dressing room and a Greek Chorus of shop assistants vetted each dress. There was the Roberto Cavalli with a neckline slashed to the waist (“oh you should wear that – show off your boobs” from the chorus). The sequined outfit that even two determined sales associates could not get zipped all the way up, and finally a simple black brocade (“Ooh, it makes you look so Regal”) that would not make me afraid to lean forward. But it didn’t end there. The dress had to be perfect! It had to be fitted! So after all that I couldn’t bring it home until the day before we flew out, so I couldn’t register it as I had forgotten to look at the label to see which designer it was.
Packing was getting more difficult. Â David gave me a light-weight birding scope, with a neat carrying case you could sling over your shoulder, and I figured it was just the thing for getting a close-up view of the swearing in. I showed it off to some friends who took one look at the case and told me I would be flat on the ground with Very Large Men sitting on my head within seconds of pulling that thing out at the inauguration. Okay â?? ditch the scope, find the binoculars. My next bright idea was to pick up a neat hand warmer that I saw in the drug store. Guaranteed warmth for 12 hours, it said on the box. I got it home, opened the box, and to my dismay pulled out a round object with a string at the top that looked exactly like a cartoon bomb â?? as seen in Mad Magazine. Ditch the hand warmer â?? find the ski gloves.
But finally we were packed and (almost) on our way. Our flight was at 7:21 on Sunday morning so we planned a 5:00 am start. What could go wrong? Stay tuned.
Yesterday dawned as clear and as cold as they had warned us. By 6:30 am the sound of people walking South past our hotel was loud enough to inspire a sense of panic. We would be too late! The lines would be too long by the time we got there! Â We wouldnâ??t make the gate before the 11:30 cut-off! Fortunately we didnâ??t know how almost true that was.
Encased in ski underwear, jeans, cashmere sweaters (Gary Locke told me later that night â?? donâ??t buy Chinese cashmere â?? explanation to follow), overcoats, thermal boots, scarves, hats, and ski gloves, we waddled into the street clutching the precious yellow tickets that would get us an actual seat at the ceremony. We were also clutching phones, cameras, binoculars, power bars and lip balm, but no liquids because a) they were forbidden in the enclosure and b) we didnâ??t know if there would be any restrooms to use during our 4 â?? 5 hour wait. We joined the river flowing down towards the National Mall. People were kind of quiet, almost serious. There was none of the wild abandon of election night. Everyone was focused on one thing â?? making it to the swearing in.
As yellow ticket holders we arrived at the yellow gate, foolishly thinking we had made it. We walked around to the back of the line, and walked and walked and walked. By 7:30 we found the end of the yellow line. The gate was at New Jersey and Constitution – we were beyond 1st and C. On our right was the end of the purple line, and people were arriving by the hundred every minute. Soon the lines stretched away behind us along C until they turned the corner and were out of sight. There was no crowd control and no direction. No barriers to separate the lines and not a police officer in sight. It was total chaos. The line disintegrated into a blob and then a mob. Newcomers were joining the line ahead of those who had been standing obediently in line for hours (us!). People began to press in and we couldn’t move – couldn’t even lift our arms we were packed so tight. We stood like that for one and a half hours at 1st and C. It wasn’t cold anymore – bodyheat was freely available – but it was beginning to be scary.
Just after the clock ticked past 9:00 am the mass that contained us lurched forward. A cheer went up from those with enough lung capacity to do it. By now we had got to know our nearest neighbors in an almost biblical sense. Next to me was James, who was a writer/producer from LA. He is responsible for The Closer on TNT Monday nights (note to self – must watch this from now on). Beyond him was his companion, Philip Keen, who is an actor on The Closer. (Must definitely watch it – he is a bona fide cutie). In front of us was a gorgeous young woman from New York. Watching the people pushing in to the line ahead of us she commented that it was a good thing no-one else was from New York or punches would have been thrown by now. The pace quickened to a shuffle. Hopes rose – we were on our way! Soon we were no longer pressed together, our communal heat dissipated and the bone-chilling cold set in. But the excitement of actually rounding the corner and seeing the Capitol, with the flag flying, gave us hope through the night – sorry, getting carried away there.
By 11:10 we were in the enclosure with 20 minutes to spare. Literally thousands of others did not make it â?? among them Greg Nickels (Mayor of Seattle). Meanwhile the purple line was such a shambles that all semblance of order was abandoned and a crowd of blue and silvers rushed the barriers and crashed into the purple section. But even those who never reached their seats said they were glad, in the end, just to be there. For those few moments this was the center of the world and inside or outside the barricades, everyone was part of it.
We had seats that gave us a view between two trees (the Gods were still with us â?? those other guys from Seattle must have been somewhere near)Â of the podium where the ceremony would take place â?? near enough to see the people on it, far enough to need the binoculars to make out who they were. The giant TV screens showed the VIPs arriving. Cheers went up as former President Jimmy Carter was announced. Somewhat fainter cheers for Bush 41. Wild enthusiasm for Bill Clinton, and then they announced George W. Bush. A different sound rolled up from the millions on the Mall. It took us a while to recognize it but then we realized that people were booing. The boos increased as the band hurriedly struck up Hail To The Chief. It was a little surreal.
Part III: Getting there is half the fun
So there we were at 5:30 am on Sunday morning. More luggage than we have ever packed in our lives stacked on the front porch, frost glittering in the moonlight, and the taxi didnâ??t turn up. Our plane tickets were for the only flight that still had seats from Seattle to DC before Tuesday. Rebooking was not an option. Â We called the car service. Ten minutes, they said. Ten minutes passed very, very slowly. After 15 minutes we threw the bags in the back of my car and started for the airport.
As we hurtled past the High Point exit on I-90, David realized he had left a bag on the porch. It was 5:50 am on a Sunday and we were the only vehicle in sight. I pulled a U-turn in the gore point and drove the wrong way down the on-ramp and back to the house. Bag in hand we set off again. By now our margin of error for catching this plane had evaporated. We made it, obviously, but my teeth didnâ??t unclench until somewhere over Illinois.
The plan was to go straight to a cocktail party at some ambassadorâ??s house in Georgetown, but the plane was somewhat late, our bags took forever to arrive and our cab got snarled in the traffic mess that engulfed the District of Columbia for the next three days. We gave up on the cocktails and decided to go straight over to the St. Regis to collect our tickets, which had been left with the concierge that morning by a campaign organizer. But the concierge said he didnâ??t have them â?? try the front desk. The front desk said no, try the concierge. When the documents finally turned up in the hotel safe, we tottered into the bar and ordered many, many glasses of wine.
Things started looking up on Monday. We had tickets to a breakfast briefing given by Janet Napolitano (new Head of Homeland Security), Mark Udall (new Senator from Colorado) and Joe Biden. They were all interesting speakers and Biden closed by saying he liked to quote Irish poets, not because he was Irish but because they wrote the best poems. Â He recited these lines by Seamus Heaney:
â??History forbids us to hope this side of the grave. But once in a lifetime, the longed-for tide of justice can arise, and Hope and History rhymeâ?.
It seemed very apt.
Then we received a lovely engraved invitation to a lunch given by â?? youâ??ve guessed it â?? our new BFF, Nancy Pelosi!. Nancy knows how to do lunch right. It was in the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, which is a beautiful room, and we had great food, excellent wine and best of all â?? short performances by Sheryll Crowe, Lyle Lovett and Jon Bon Jovi. Rahm Emmanuelle gave a mini-speech and Nancy was introduced by Diane Von Furstenburg (??). There were a lot of flags and many pearl necklaces. It was all eerily familiar and everyone was very well-behaved.
This was not the case at our Bi-partisan black-tie dinner. There were three of these taking place that evening, each honoring a different Republican official. Our dinner was honoring Colin Powell – which struck me as cheating. Another was honoring John McCain, which was a nice gesture but he probably asked to be seated with his back to a wall. Once more a beautiful room – the National Building Museum – filled with elegant flower arrangements and dresses that had doubtless been registered well in advance. But as we waited to check our coats behind two pretty young staffers, a woman in a fur coat raced up to the young women and hissed “we have been put at table 2, which is at the far end of the room behind a very large pillar. We are donors at the highest level. What is the meaning of this?”. They politely said they would look into it and the woman rushed away, emanating fury. Most people in the line were trying not to laugh. So after we had checked our coats we went to look for Table 2. The woman was right – that table sucked big time. She must have pissed off the wrong staffer once too often.
We went in search of our own table and lo, it was one row away from the stage, at the side, with a great view of all the proceedings. We werenâ??t quite sure how we merited that, but it soon became clear. We were joined at the table by a Seattle couple whom we knew from other Democratic events, and began comparing notes. Did you get a direct flight? I asked. No, she said. They wanted to visit some friends on the way, so they brought their own plane. Oh â?? right.
Colin Powell gave a thoughtful speech and was roundly applauded. People even stopped taking pictures of Stephen Spielberg, Tom and Rita Hanks, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw to listen. Then Faith Hill sang a couple of great songs and Joe Biden popped up to give a short speech, ending with “I like to quote Irish poets, not because I’m Irish ……” etc. It was still a great quote. Finally there was a stirring of the air as a phalanx of dark-suited men appeared silently around the stage, and out from behind the curtain stepped a relaxed and smiling Barack Obama. The movie stars were forgotten in the stampede for cameras. Iphones and Blackberries shot into the air like spines rising on a porcupine and the excitement quotient rose alarmingly. The woman at table 2 probably dropped dead of apoplexy behind her pillar. Obama spoke for about ten minutes and I can’t remember a word of it – it is all just a glowing memory of happiness that this man had won and that we were lucky enough to be there.
In the security tent I changed out of my environmentally and socially responsible Charmone high heels and put on sneakers. We walked the 10 blocks back and laid out our layers of cold-weather clothing for our 6:00 am start the next day. It was hard to believe that we were just a couple of hours away from a day that would make history. I hoped fervently that we would not be seated behind a tree.
Part IV:Â There IS a President Obama - continued
With apologies for the disjointed nature of these bulletins. The advertised wi-fi at Union Station was an urban myth and we had to wait until we reached Savannah to get a strong enough signal to send. To continue â?¦.
The booing of George Bush engendered mixed feelings. I despise his administrationâ??s actions and ideology as much as anyone â?? and no, I canâ??t let Florida go â?? but it struck a nasty note on this happy and historic day. Fortunately that was really the only negative thing that happened. Despite the chaos of the lines â?? and by the evening you only had to say you had a purple ticket and people bought you drinks â?? there was not one arrest or reported crime during the hours that 1.8 million people were jammed together on the Mall.
The sun was shining, the sky was a pure cold blue and there were people as far as the eye could see. From our position just below the West front of the Capitol, the Mall looked like a huge field of flowers. Aretha Franklinâ??s voice soaring over the Capitol with â??let freedom ringâ? had already moved many to tears and we were not the only people blinking hard to keep focused on that podium beneath the flags.
Only a few minutes late, Joe Biden took the oath of office as Vice-President. I half expected him to say “I like to quote Irish poets – “ but he stuck to the script. Then Chief Justice Roberts stepped forward as Michelle Obama held out Lincoln’s bible for her husband to take the oath. I could see Obama’s red tie against a blindingly white shirt behind the podium but we were too far away to see faces – we had to watch that on the big screen later. Now that the moment had come, the massive crowd, which had been chanting “Yes, We Did” and “O-ba-ma!” fell silent. David and I were so dazed by the significance of this ceremony that we didn’t notice Justice Roberts flubbing his lines ( apparently they had a do-over in the Oval Office) but as far as the world was concerned, at that point Barack Hussein Obama, whose middle name had been used by the hate-mongers to whip up frenzy and fear, was now the 44th President of the United States of America.
Just writing about it, propped up on a hotel bed in a former slave state â?? brings back the tears. It all seemed unreal at the time and it is only now really sinking in. Our grandchildren will be able to tell their grandchildren that their great-great grandparents were there when the world changed. And it changed not only because the American people, with all the history of slavery, segregation and bigotry riding on our shoulders, elected an African-American as President, but also because we elected a man of integrity who has challenged us to rise to meet the crisis that faces us and the world through hard work, generosity of spirit and dedication to the ideals on which this country was founded.
Okay â?? back to the frivolous details. An inaugural committee staffer had told me that we could go to a reception in Union Station after the ceremony, to warm up before the trek back. But we found the doors to the station guarded by a line of policemen and a fierce young woman who was turning people away in droves. She glanced contemptuously at our tickets and said no â?? they didnâ??t get us in. â??Mike Gilmore said we couldâ? I offered hopefully. Whatâ??s your name, she snapped. I told her and the doors were thrown open, we were ushered inside with exhortations to eat and drink, and apologies for not recognizing me in my Michelin-man outfit. Somewhat stunned David and I looked at each other. â??Your name has obviously been on far too many checksâ? he said. But the hot coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches (and restrooms!) were worth every penny.
The final event was, of course, The Ball. There were ten official Balls and we were at the Western event, which encompassed every state west of Kansas City. People in The Other Washington have a very hazy sense of geography beyond Chicago. We joined the stream of black-tied and ball-gowned party goers and bounced from check-point to check-point until we finally found our Ball – in a cavernous, badly lit room somewhere in the basement. In the entire four-acre expanse there was one tiny area with chairs – posted “For guests with disabilities”. We had been standing for so many hours already, and there were still plenty of empty chairs, so feeling slightly guilty we slid into the back row. The couple in front of us jumped up and walked away. “It’s a Miracle! Said David, they’re not even limping!”. We peered through the gloom at the other sitters. Not so much as a hearing aid between the lot of them. Either the Obama effect was giving Lourdes a run for its money or we weren’t the only people too tired to stand. We stopped feeling guilty.
The ballroom began to fill up and the parade of ball-gowns was becoming impressive. In the Regal black brocade, with my thrift store rhinestones, I felt we had achieved some middle ground. But the train was beginning to be a liability - I was jerked to a graceless halt every other step by people standing on it. I gave up the regal thing and slung my skirt over my arm while walking. We began to meet people we knew and the celebrities were starting to show up. Ron Howard was walking around waiting for people to recognize him, but anyone who would cared was climbing over each others backs to catch a glimpse of Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez.. Marc Anthony was the scheduled entertainer and he delivered a high energy performance that got people singing and clapping along. At the end he announced he would sing a song “for Jennifer”. My Spanish is pathetic so I couldn’t tell if it was a love song or his terms for divorce. We all cheered, either way.
By now the chairs, which were to the side of the stage had completely filled with seemingly able-bodied people, and a guy next to me in a wheelchair gave up on trying to get through. He proved to be a charming companion, which was fortunate as he had parked his wheel chair on my just-released train and I was nailed to the spot for the rest of the evening. It wasnâ??t a bad spot to be in â?? I could see part of the stage and when the Bidens came by I caught glimpses of their obligatory dance. And Joe made a short speech, ending with â?¦ you should be able to fill this in yourselves by now.
Finally, as midnight approached, came the moment everyone had been breathlessly anticipating. The President and First Lady came by to take their own formal turn around the stage. He was in white tie and couldnâ??t stop smiling. She was in a white, one-shouldered gown that flowed gracefully behind her. They did not look the least bit tired. Michelle clasped her hands behind his back and rested her head on his shoulder, to coos of delight from the ball-goers. He grinned, Â twirled her around, and stood on her train.
So now itâ??s over, or, as our President said, it is just beginning. See you all back home.