Leubsdorf '10 Reflects on His Experience at the Presidential Inauguration

Photo taken by Will Leubsdorf '10 of the Obama Motorcade on the Inaugural Parade Route
Photo taken by Will Leubsdorf '10 of the Obama Motorcade on the Inaugural Parade Route
The build-up to this inauguration is like nothing I've seen as a lifelong resident of Washington, D.C. Security had been steadily ratcheting up since New Years, as 42,000 cops prepared to hit the streets to control the crowds. The traffic around Friday last week became unbearable, as millions of people swarmed into the city. Traveling anywhere in the city became more difficult then wading through a crowd at a Jonas Brothers' concert. In the week leading up to the big event, there was a huge run on stores selling warm clothes and hand warmers. Yuppies were waiting in lines at Hudson Trail Outfitters for long johns like they were trying to buy a Nintendo Wii.

Around the city, there was an unmistakable air of anticipation. You could feel the excitement everywhere, a remarkable contrast with the last inauguration, when most of the city was still gloomy over the defeat of John "Longface" Kerry.

Almost all the stores put the presidential seal, homemade signs, patriotic bunting or various Obama-related memorabilia in their windows. A wide variety of Obama-related memorabilia was on sale everywhere, ranging from high quality to pure junk: Obama hats, clothing, a hoodie with Obama's face made from sequins, baby shirts proclaiming the wearer as the "2nd Black President," a hoodie with a cartoon Obama dressed as Superman, postcards with Obama's face juxtaposed with those of Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., and (my personal favorite) Obama condoms, for "use with good judgment!"

Going downtown for the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural parade required a fair amount of planning, with more than two million people competing for a finite amount of real estate. I was unable to get a ticket to watch the swearing-in at the Capitol, as I am a resident of D.C., and we don't get perks like inaugural tickets and senators. The other option, waiting eight hours in the freezing cold on the Mall to watch a Jumbotron, seemed like a bit of a waste, so two friends and I opted to go for a spot along the parade route. The inaugural parade is always on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol building and Lafayette Park in front of the White House. A 15-block radius around the Capitol and parade route was closed to traffic, along with a couple Metro stops, so we decided to walk from my house in Georgetown to Pennsylvania Avenue before the Metro opened and the crowds became totally ridiculous.

The night before, we gathered at my house, collecting our hand warmers, snack bars, water, pretzels and energy drinks for the day ahead. We left my house at 3 a.m. and got to our target location, E and 7th Streets. We thought arriving that early would mean we would get to our preferred spot at the Navy Memorial on 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue by 8 a.m. Boy, were we wrong.

In typical D.C. bureaucratic manner, at 4 a.m. we got into a line to get into line for the security checkpoint. Initially, we got into the wrong line for the line, but we still managed to get a pretty good spot in the correct line. Around 5 a.m., the police opened up the street to get into the security "line" to enter the parade area. I use the word line with a touch of irony, because it wasn't really a line as much as a mob of several thousand people tightly packed together in a small closed-off section of 7th Street trying to force themselves through two small gates leading to the metal detectors.

I have never been a part of a crowd so huge, as the line behind us stretched for almost four blocks of people closely packed together. And it was totally packed. I literally spent the next seven hours wedged tightly between a nice middle-aged African-American lady from North Carolina, a college student from GW, two high school seniors from Austin, Texas, a pair of thirty-something friends from Michigan, along with several other people who changed throughout the early morning. The blob of people moved very slowly, about one step every 15 minutes. With every step, inevitably a desperate mass push forward followed along with quick moves to reposition oneself to get a better angle towards the security gate. The blob was like America; full of kind, diverse people who would kill you to get ahead. It was very cold, but the huge mass of people kept us fairly warm.

Initially, the blob was cheerful about the experience, chanting "Yes We Can," "Oh-bam-a!" and the words to "Lean on Me." As time went on, nerves became more frayed, and the "Yes We Can" chants steadily changed to chants of "Let Us In!"

That there was no communication by anyone in charge about what was going on and why it was taking so long to get everyone through security didn't help the situation. Rumors circulated throughout the blob, that the gates were closed, that there was an FBI warning about this particular checkpoint, that the metal detectors were broken. It was ridiculous how totally unprepared the Inaugural Committee was for the crush of people trying to get anywhere where they could catch even a glimpse of President Obama.

Finally, around 11:30, my group finally made it through security and made it easily to our chosen spot outside the Navy Memorial, on the statue of General Winfield Scott Hancock, a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. We made it just in time to hear the beginning of the swearing-in ceremony, which was being broadcasting through speakers set-up throughout the parade route. People cheered lightly as Joe Biden was sworn in. People cheered much louder when it was announced at noon that George W. Bush's presidency was over. Five minutes later, everyone around us stood up at attention, and listened to Barack Obama get sworn in as president. As soon as he said "So help me God" people started yelling, cheering and dancing. My friend Dylan tackled me and caused me almost to fall off the statue.

Then there was another three-hour wait, as the parade was delayed due to Teddy Kennedy's seizure. We were kicked off the statue of General Hancock because it was a "legal liability issue," and we found a new spot on a tiny hill right next to the statue, which provided a good view of the parade route. At this point, we had been in the cold for a long time, and without several thousand people around us we became very chilly very quickly. We broke out the hand warmers and took turns going inside the heated Navy Memorial Visitor's Center to warm up.

Finally, the inaugural parade started with the D.C. police color guards. Every possible institution with a color guard had one marching in the parade, along with an old Metro Bus from the 1950s. The Army and Navy bands passed by, along with soldiers dressed in old-school, colonial-style redcoats. Finally, the new president's entourage arrived, police cars and Secret Service agents jogging alongside the his heavily armored limousine. The cold and tired crowd went crazy, cheering loudly. Parents hoisted their kids on their shoulders to see the President's car drive past.

Then, literally 20 feet right in front of the spot I was standing, the limousine stopped. The crowd went wild as the door popped open, and President Obama and the First Lady got out of the car, waved to the audience and started walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, a tradition started by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. The crowd went crazy, as everyone surged forward to see the President. At first, the President looked almost like a caricature of himself, a man wearing a Barack Obama mask, but even at a distance you could feel a powerful presence and charisma emanating from him. As he walked away, my friends and I gave each other high-fives and then immediately jogged for an exit, as we decided it was too cold to watch the entire parade. We were not the only ones, and I suspect the various high school bands that make up the parade played to a significantly smaller crowd. Unable to catch a cab, and unwilling to get into another enormous line for the Metro, we opted to walk 26 blocks home.
While I was tired from not sleeping since Sunday, sore from standing in lines for hours and almost totally frozen by the time I got home at 5:30 p.m. after 14 hours in the cold, I was deliriously happy to be there at a pivotal moment in our country's history. It really felt like I was a part of something special, waiting with a cross-section of our society wanting to be part of one of the defining points of American history. There was nowhere else I would have wanted to be than right there.

by Will Leubsdorf '10
Back to Top