Thoughts on President Barack Obama's Inauguration from a D.C. Program Student

Photo taken by Kye Lippold '10 on the National Mall
Photo taken by Kye Lippold '10 on the National Mall
At first, the streets of Washington were not particularly crowded. When I stepped outside into the brisk, gray dawn at 7 a.m., there were only a few bikers and small clumps of people hurrying to Metro stations. My roommate and I had decided to rise early to try and beat the crowd to the National Mall. The night before, there were rumors of vast throngs and endless waiting, despite the predicted snow. We shared gloves, socks and directions in what we expected to be an adventure.

Only when we reached F Street, when a herd of busses stormed by, did I begin to realize how large the event would be. The clumps of pedestrians increased in size. I bought a copy of the inaugural edition of the Washington Post from a street vendor and saw its full-page print of Barack Obama's newly minted portrait -- a more somber expression than his usual smiling photographs. By the time we turned the corner towards the National Mall, the stream of people had become a flood, and urgency was in the air.

Hawkers selling food and hand-warming heat packets picked their way through the crowd of customers. Seagulls swarmed over the lawn of the Washington Monument. Volunteers for the event, in bright red hats, stood in lines just to give hi-fives to the insistent groups pressing by. After fighting to move forward in the crowd, which became denser and denser as we approached the distant Capitol, we settled for standing in front of the third giant television screen from the Reflecting Pool. The crowds there were less rabid about pressing for a good view, and the weather was mild (warmer than expected, though there was much stomping to keep the chill out of one's boots). Some rabble-rousers occasionally raised cries of "O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!" but they soon died out in the cold and gravity of the day.

With American society now accustomed to constant information, it was no surprise that giant television screens were broadcasting Sunday night's celebrity concert while we waited. A host of world-renowned performers (Bono, Beyonce, Garth Brooks) played classic songs, culminating in an ancient Pete Seeger leading the audience in "This Land Is Your Land." When the audience took up the call and raised their voices around us, I realized in my heart just how much it meant that a black man could finally reach the Oval Office, helping to prove "this land was made for you and me."

We waited on our feet for hours while the children's choir sang, the marching band played and dignitary after dignitary of the government was announced and filed into their seats. The tight linkages of Washington politics were palpable. The shifting focus of the camera showed that it mattered greatly who went in with whom, with whom they shook hands, who avoided each other. The former presidents were all there -- George H.W. Bush showing his years more and more, Bill Clinton seeming to struggle with Hillary over whether they should hold hands and Jimmy Carter looking satisfied as he curtly greeted Clinton. George W. Bush was one of the last to enter, followed by Vice President Cheney in a wheelchair. A glimpse of Bush produced scattered boos from our crowd; for all the glorification in the day's speeches of a peaceful transfer of power, there was no love lost in Washington for the outgoing leader.

The crowd broke into cheering every time the screen showed even a glimpse of the president-elect (and to a lesser extent, Joe Biden). When Obama finally entered to take his seat, to enormous applause, he looked nervous. His eyes were closed during Rick Warren's invocation, as if he realized he was about to cross a bridge over which there was no return.
The moments prior to the oath were broken up by artistic pieces. Aretha Franklin sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee," a curious echo for me of her appearance at Hamilton as a Sacerdote Great Names speaker in 2007. Most impressive was the first classical quartet ever to be played at an inauguration, composed by John Williams and played by luminary musicians. In the soaring strains of the piece, I again felt keenly the hope that Obama has sought to bring.
There was a glitch in the presidential oath as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts made an error, but Obama recovered and finished the oath. After that, he seemed to relax, and his inaugural speech was just as moving as the ones he had used on the campaign trail. For the first time, his promises of international cooperation and real change held certain weight. He was direct about the economic crisis, suggesting hard work and service would be needed to overcome our country's challenges. The crowd roared when he finished.
While I was not impressed by the inaugural poet, who seemed to grab artlessly a bit too much at the feeling that Obama, Williams and Seeger had already invoked, the benediction by Joseph Lowry perfectly sealed the ceremony with a call for tolerance and an injection of a bit of humor.

On the way out of the inauguration, crowds were stymied by barricades, and tempers began to flare, I did notice some conflicts with Obama's essential message. For all that can be preached about American selflessness and service, ideals of cooperation can be quickly left behind in a mass of people determined to move out of the cold. Inaugural buttons and memorabilia were being sold for inflated prices. President Bush's helicopter made its last circuit around the city. Streets were blocked and the walk home long. While the inauguration of President Barack Obama is been no panacea, and our nation sustains many of its petty divisions, the day's events hinted above all at a chance for improvement and a realization that, for a brief moment, our nation can unite around a vision of hope.

— by Kye Lippold '10
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