Didn’t see Obama, but inaugural trip was worthy
The two women had a glow about them. They sat across from my friend Valorie and me on the Washington, DC, subway headed to President Barak Obama’s swearing-in on the National Mall.
I had driven down to the nation’s capital with Valorie and friends Kristin and Theresa without any major expectations of getting up close to the President, but just to be there. Like the 800,000 other people who drove, walked, flew by plane or rode by train to the second inauguration of the country’s first black president.
The two white women – who must have been in their 70s but looked a decade younger – seemed so much more excited than I felt. Yes, being in the city for the inauguration was a treat, but I didn’t gush with excitement.
They had been to Obama’s 2009 inauguration and also to Bill Clinton’s (he had two), said the woman seated closest to us. “All of the Democratic ones,” her companion added. Just before the Metro came to their stop, one of them mentioned almost as an aside: “We’ve been coming since Johnson.”
She apparently was referring to Lyndon B. Johnson’s second inauguration on Jan. 20, 1965. His first swearing-in was aboard Air Force One in 1963, hours after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Who can forget the iconic photo of that swearing-in, with Jackie Kennedy on his left side still in the outfit she was wearing when her husband was shot and Lady Bird Johnson slightly behind him on his right.
The two women on the subway were among about 1.2 million people who attended Johnson’s inauguration. What stories they could’ve told us about their inaugural trips, but then they were gone.
“Black folks didn’t elect Obama,” Valorie said later. “Seeing so many white people who had been there at the last inauguration and how many whites who thought they should be (at this one) was very uplifting,” she said.
I had missed the last round of inaugural events in 2009. It was freezing cold in Washington – so cold, one visitor told us, that even layered in clothes, she still felt like she was naked. I had watched it from inside my toasty home on an old 19-inch TV. I saw the swearing-in, listened to the singers, and saw the President and First Lady Michelle Obama walk down Pennsylvania Avenue waving to the freezing throng.
Deep inside, though, I felt that I should’ve been part of what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience – much like the 250,000 people at the 1963 March on Washington. Many didn’t get close to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or A. Phillip Randolph, and probably couldn’t hear much of the speech, but most important, they were there.
My friends and I decided a week before to drive down. We had no tickets to the swearing-in – after we got there, a woman offered to sell us for $45 each the four parade tickets she had bought (no thank you) – or any of the inaugural balls (Pennsylvania ball tickets were $300 each; no thank you, again).
We decided to wing in like the hundreds of other people who joined us in walking from one gate to another trying to find a public entrance to the mall to view the swearing-in and inaugural address. We had planned accordingly to locate the public entrances based on the info on the official website, but most were closed.
At the first public entrance, we stood in a crowd that inched forward toward a search tent. A bright yellow board posted on the fence told us that backpacks, coolers, weapons and a host of other items were prohibited. Beneath the sign, people had dumped fabric fold-up chairs. Inside, someone had dropped a paring knife.
As we closed in on the tent, we were told the entrance was closed – we guessed that the mall area beyond us had already filled up – and were directed to walk five long blocks to another one.
So we walked and walked and walked some more until we got to the far end of the mall where the last Jumbotron had been set up. Hundreds of people were already there, “generations of people,” Valorie, a retired school psychologist, pointed out later, including moms and dads with young children.
“It was not just black and white,” Theresa, a high school teacher, said, noting the Asians and Hispanics, too. “People came from everywhere. … I was touched by how he really did bring people together.”
Kristin was frustrated, though: It took us three hours to get here, she said, and we ended up near the Washington Monument 1.2 miles away. I, too, was a bit perturbed, and then came another disappointment.
We watched the Jumbotron as dignitaries were announced and shown to their seats. Then the screen went crazy: the live stream kept cutting people in half, scrambling faces and skipping on the audio like a bad phonograph record.
There was so much interference that we decided to leave – lunch was calling – and we missed the swearing-in, the inaugural address, Kelly Clarkson and Beyonce. Along the way, we bumped into Valorie’s cousin Raymond Holman Jr. selling Obama photos that he had shot in 2008.
After lunch, we stood in line again – closer this time to the public parade entrance, where we met a group of other folks from Philadelphia – and were “that” close to the search tent when we heard cheers up ahead. I bet it’s the President, Valorie said, and we knew that she was probably right.
I could see folks running toward the street and a flat-bed truck with camera equipment aimed down at it. Shortly after, lines of people walked away from the commotion and Valorie asked them about the cheering. It was indeed the President and First Lady, she was told. We had missed them, but I’m not sure if we could’ve gotten close enough to see them anyway.
It was that kind of day, one of “mishaps,” as Kristin described it. The day before, we had missed a free concert by Smokey Robinson at the Kennedy Center, where the lines were also long.
It was a “frustration of logistics,” Kristin explained later. “Trying to navigate, to experience the best of the experience, and sometimes it didn’t work.”
The next day, we got to see an exhibit called “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963″ at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The exhibit was sponsored by the history museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2015. The exhibit will be at the history museum until Sept. 15, and it’s worth a visit.
One interesting tidbit from the exhibit: African Americans first participated in an inaugural parade on March 4, 1865. It was President Lincoln’s second inauguration, and four companies of the United States Colored Troops, members of an Odd Fellows lodge and Masons were among the marchers. This was two years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of which I saw in 2011 that had belonged to Robert F. Kennedy.
An exhibit of First Ladies gowns at the museum changed Valorie’s mind about the Jason Wu inaugural gown that Michelle Obama wore four years ago. On TV, it had reminded Valorie of a chenille bedspread, but she pronounced the garment beautiful after seeing it up close. I always thought it was lovely.
Our trip to the inauguration didn’t produce any first-hand or up-close views, but I can say “I was there.” “Especially at my age, I’m glad I came,” said Valorie. “It should be on everybody’s bucket list. I’m glad I did it.”