“Tomorrow is some shit, people,” Adam Yauch declared matter-of-factly Monday night, after searching for an appropriate way to close out the Beastie Boys’ fearsome inaugural-eve Rock the Vote gig in Washington. He meant it positively, of course – and he certainly cracked himself and his audience up with his offhand bon mot. (“You can Google that tomorrow,” he added – and, as of now, he’s right.) But his imprecise phrasing struck me as a delightfully precise reflection of the Rorschach blot that was Barack Obama’s inauguration.
There were at least 1.8 million stories in the bone-chilling city of Washington on Tuesday – most likely a lot more, considering the many thousands who came to town but never made it to the Mall. Each of us had his own reasons for being there, brought his own personal history and emotions, and emerged with his own tales to tell. We had all come to celebrate and to stand up for our new President and his achievements, but we were also there to commemorate our own successes and indulge our own euphoria.
Young people flooded into town because this was the first time they felt truly connected to the workings of their country, and they were justifiably excited about the role they had played in Obama’s victory – and because they knew, as my friend said the other day, that this was going to be “the party of our lifetime.”
For hundreds of thousands of African-Americans, the draw to DC was of course a profound one, and many of those who showed up did so in their grandest finery, even in the bitter chill of Tuesday morning. Their enthusiasm during the endless walks and Metro rides, their tears through the events of Sunday and Tuesday, the huge numbers who turned out to work in soup kitchens and on park cleanups during Monday’s Obama-mandated Day of Service, the thousands of charity and social workers who crammed into the JW Marriott hotel for a “People’s Inaugural Project” convention and then dominated the Neighborhood Ball … their resplendence in three-piece suits and chinchilla coats, putting to shame us whiteys who were shivering in bulky sweaters and ski caps. It was a sight to see.
For not-so-young, white Democrats like myself, making the trip to Washington felt like raising a flag on retaken ground — ground whose provenance had been long fought over, ground on which much had been lost already. We were there to say, we’re not just leaving it to this guy we elected – we’re taking this capital city, and this country, back ourselves. Much of Obama’s inaugural address, then, was directed at us: his sweeping repudiations of the Bush legacy; his signals to the world that the real America, the one they (and we) want and need, is once more in effect; and (in my favorite line) his announcement that petty boomer-era politics are over, that “the time has come to set aside childish things” and get down to the real work at hand.
Of course, there was plenty of uplift in Obama’s speech as well, and there were numerous attempts to reach across the aisle on security, religion and other issues. My friend John Heilemann wrote on New York magazine’s website that the address’s relative paucity of rhetorical high points may have been part of Obama’s effort to unify the nation behind him: It “may not have been his prettiest or most intoxicating. But it may wind up serving a higher, more noble purpose: contributing to a climate where it’s possible to get shit done.”
Evidence of the need to revamp America’s priorities and capabilities in all sorts of areas was abundant even as Obama discussed it on Tuesday. The stock market plunged again, and even on a day of near-universal hopefulness a Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, took it upon himself to delay Hillary Clinton’s scheduled confirmation as Secretary of State for no discernable reason apart from spite. Bush-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts couldn’t even get the oath of office right. And a shambolic “system” of security checkpoints kept thousands of inauguration ticket-holders stranded in a tunnel for hours before being they were access to the Mall.
The organization wasn’t much better for the non-ticketed proletarians like myself, who were given exactly one point of access on the otherwise-fenced-off Constitution Avenue. The way in actually wasn’t too bad, but the way out was a massive crush of humanity. It’s a damn good thing everyone’s spirits were so high, because the bottleneck at Constitution and 18th Street could easily have turned tragic.
Still, the logistics of the whole thing turned off a significant number of would-be attendees – like the pair of African-American teenagers I encountered on the Metro as they were being accosted by an elegantly turned-out black woman who was fresh from the Mall. “Why weren’t you out there for Barack? He’s our man!” she asked indignantly.
“He’s not just our man,” said one of the teens, cynically, turning toward me. “A bunch of white people voted for him … You voted for him, right?”
After I responded affirmatively, the other kid said, “We were going to go down there, but when we saw how many people were in the streets we decided to go do something else.”
The woman was incredulous. “But this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing! You’ll never see anything like this again.”
The first kid laughed. “We see him every day. He’s on the TV, like, 24 hours a day. If I need to see him, I’ll just turn on CNN.”
I still can’t decide which side of this conversation made more sense. For purposes of self-justification, I think I have to go with the lady, but the guys certainly had a point. Here’s hoping things go so well over the next four years that Obama’s next inaugural can be a quieter affair – one for which those already jaded boys, who by then will be grown men, might drum up some enthusiasm. Heck, they even be able to get right up close to the stage.