Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Frigid, Momentous Day

Amidst the deafening silence of two million people, listening to the 44th president's artfully delivered speech, I lost track of my painfully numb toes and fingers. There is something beautiful in the grand masses of peaceful, positive people gathering around a common identity.

Maybe it is the scarcity of the occasion. Not only does one rarely see such numeric splendor with the eyes, but it is not often that one experiences an instant aura of history, like the one that fell upon the National Mall around noon today. Moreover, it may be only once in my lifetime that I will so tangibly feel such unity radiating from a complex, often-disagreeing people.

Yes, beautiful is accurate. (See the image below from the Associated Press. All other images are from my "ground level" perspective.)

If anyone is controlling the weather, then they made it inordinately difficult to enjoy the long travel and waiting times associated with getting into the Mall. With windchill, it was 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit.

I met my friends Ashesh and Stephanie in line to get into the ticketed "blue section" -- about 100-200 yards from the steps of the Capitol building -- around 9 AM. The lines were huge, unwieldy, and poorly managed by event staff. I will save you the frustrating details, but suffice it to say that the staff lacked a lot of coordination with the crowd during the entrance stage. At one point near the gate to get into the blue section, we were being picked up and carried by the crowd because of poor line management.

Anyway, we entered the standing area for our section around 11:30 AM, just as Diane Feinstein began speaking. Although staff was noticeably lacking outside the barriers, there was plenty of security to go around in the open Mall area. But if the cold and boredom got to me outside the gates, then they were quickly forgotten inside. The momentous view melted all discomfort (at least for the next half hour).

It is hard to describe the feeling one gets amongst a group of this size. Maybe some of my photos will help. (And the Google satellite images taken during the event give a sense of magnitude as well.)

After Obama's delightful rhetoric -- expressing both poetry and principle -- we waited for another 45 minutes in the Mall to let the crowd begin to stream out before making our exit. Image below: my roommate and good friend, Ashesh, poses in front of the milling crowd.

Once in the streets, though, my friends and I were again reminded of the intensity of the occasion. Every street for miles in any direction was packed with people. And all of them were heading in seemingly disparate directions. Surely many were headed to the Metro (the city's subway system), but others were figuring out how to burn time before their buses (which lined every street) departed the city. Many were also figuring out how to make their way to the parade, all the way on the northern side of the Mall.

With the cold setting in again and the singular focus of the millions dissipating, we three tried to find a corner with food, warmth, and a seat. It took us another hour of walking all about the South Capitol area, but eventually, we found a sufficient restaurant in L'Enfant Plaza. (And by "sufficient", I mean a food establishment obviously over capacity, running out of every food in their buffet.)

After warming up and filling up, Steph, Ashesh, and I decided to skip the incredibly long lines (hours of lines) at every Metro station and take the 2-3 mile walk all the way across and through the Mall to the Key Bridge, which leads back into Virginia. Along the way, we saw the media booths of MSNBC and ABC. We also witnessed the surreal amount of open space in the Mall that had been full to the brim a short time before. Before leaving the Mall grounds, Steph and I captured one more photo in front of the Washington Monument. Though we were tired of walking and standing, though the day was frigid, we were happy (evidently).

When I arrived back at my cozy apartment in Arlington (around 5:30 PM), I was floating in the excitement of the day. I lay back in my recliner and rested my feet, pondering the experience.

DC had been transformed, almost bursting from the strain of millions. Yet it was a pleasant overcrowding, and it was hard to find a person who complained. The dominant feeling was one of camaraderie and shared identity. We could finally celebrate an ethnically and politically historic moment, sharing hope and anticipation.

But that anticipation also breeds expectation. Needless to say, after the parades, pomp, and pageants, President Obama -- after months of waiting, it feels good to say that -- needs to be in top gear tomorrow morning.

For today, though, I am taking a rare moment to indulge in the gravity of a grand social movement. It felt good to be part of today's mass gathering. And I am fortunate. Fortunate for the marvelous view.


  1. So ... what did you think of the speech?

  2. As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, the rhetoric was artful, and the addition of 2 million+ people silently reveling in the words made the speech even more epic.

    However, as inspiring as his words and rhetorical talent may be, one should not make too much (in way of policy) from an inaugural speech. These things are basically a list of values and principles by which the president plans to follow for his term. This generality makes the speech less useful for analysis than the State of the Union (to be delivered within a few weeks) or other policy speeches by Obama. This is why I am not going to make much of the speech.

    Besides, Obama and Bush share a lot of values in common and said similar things in their inauguration rhetoric (albeit Obama delivers the words WAY better). The real test is who actually *adheres* to these principles. Obama's begins acting today. I -- along with everyone else -- will begin to judge.

  3. I know you say the inauguration speech shouldn't be paid too much heed, but I thought it was a standout for all the content. He really called the citizens out, reminding them that their future is in their hands, and that that future is looking grim if those hands remain lazy. Also, he addressed the Muslim world for the first time in such a setting.

    - Ross

  4. True, these are all positive things. And I hope that Obama fulfills his stated values.

    But as I said before, speeches like this are not about specific policy. It is like me stating that I believe in treating people kindly; that I believe this says little about my immigration policy, for example. Will I loosen regulations on foreign workers or strengthen them? And why is either any more "kind" than the other?

    Now with a month past, though, I can say that Obama has been working diligently and seems to be fulfilling his states values most of the time. But I think he has faltered on the continued air drone strikes in Pakistan -- this may be showing a *lack* of respect for the Muslim world.

    Also, a CORRECTION: I originally said that there would be a State of the Union this year, but I was incorrect. The president does not technically deliver a "State of the Union Address" in his first year. But he usually delivers something similar to the State of the Union -- an address to all of Congress -- in February.

    This coming address will be much more telling in terms of policy. It may not be as poetic, but its weight in the eyes of analysts and policymakers the world over is much more important. (Recall Bush's "Axis of Evil in his 2002 State of the Union speech.)