The United States is likely the only major nation on earth that welcomes anyone and everyone to witness its leader recite the oath of office.
Such was the case on Monday, Jan. 21, when at least 800,000 people assembled on Capitol Hill and the National Mall for the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. I say “witness” because not everyone actually could hear his words as hundreds – if not thousands – were having their own conversations while straining for a better look.
I went to Washington with an idealistic vision before me. I imagined the crowd as attentive as patrons seated at Shea’s Performing Arts Center on opening night. And while I allowed myself four hours of time before the oath of office was to be administered, I was late before I had even started.
Inauguration Day began early with a trek before dawn to The Dubliner, a landmark pub on The Hill. There, MSNBC was broadcasting live beginning at 5:30 a.m. with the aptly named show “Way Too Early,” followed by “Morning Joe.” Political junkies flocked to its doors and formed a line that stretched around the corner.
Among those waiting to get inside were Joseph “Marty” and Monica Welch of Kensington, Md. They have spent summer vacations at the Chautauqua Institute.
“Monday was a lot of fun for us,” Marty later told me. “After [the] Dubliner, we ended up in a favorite sports bar that overlooks Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Dubliner patrons were not disappointed. Inside a small heated tent at the door, a waiter offered coffee at $3 a cup and breakfast sandwiches for $8.
“We start serving the strong stuff at 8 am,” proclaimed a Facebook post around 7, shortly before my name was called for a seat directly inside the front door. David Axelrod, former senior adviser to the president, and Colin Powell, former secretary of state, crossed my path. I almost forgot there was also an inauguration on the menu.
The distance was short but the wait was long as pedestrians clogged a street leading to a ticket-screening checkpoint, then airport-style security.
That’s where I met a man from Kalamazoo, Mich. I asked him why he had made the trip to D.C.
“Bucket list,” he said with a nod, the same reason that had motivated me to commit to the event more than a year ago. “We made our plane reservations the day after the election.”
Our conversation touched on baseball heroes past and present as well as the decline and potential for rebirth in Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo. He had been to the Vatican but never an inauguration.
Finally, we shuffled toward specific standing areas. Fifty feet later, the line stopped. Permanently. We were in gridlock.
Not everyone in the overflow crowd was even remotely familiar with the official order of the ceremony, but did it really matter? How important was it that Kelly Clarkson sang before Beyoncé? Or if Beyoncé lip-synched?
In essence, it was a time for all Americans. The man taking the oath of office was not whom I voted for, but Obama stood tall in a ceremony rich in American tradition. I respect him for that. Marty agreed.
“Seeing how my candidate was being sworn in, being in Washington on Inauguration Day was all gravy,” Marty wrote. “The most meaningful part of inaugural festivities was sharing the day with like-minded Americans who had traveled to the nation’s capital from all over the country, who shared the anticipation of thoughtful decision-making, and with whom I could share unbridled enthusiasm and joy.
“Before sunrise, my wife and I joined a long line waiting outside a traditional Irish bar adjacent to the Capitol, to be in the audience for MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where we met our new friend, David Sherman. Learning that he was from Buffalo, where my wife’s father grew up, we shared stories.
By noon, we had celebrated with other new friends from California, Texas and Florida.Is this a great country or what?”