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The scale of this is too grand for words’

Experiences from Washington, D.C., January 20, 2009

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Photo: Chad J. McNeeley
Joe McGinniss Jr.

8:40 a.m.

The warm bus, standing-room only, turns people away at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Wisconsin. We pass by the National Cathedral, Dick Cheney’s old house, Joe Biden’s new residence, the Naval Observatory. We’re on our way, hurtling past the South African embassy, a breathtaking Muslim prayer center, toward DuPont Circle and our final stop: Rhode Island Avenue and Connecticut, maybe 10 blocks from the National Mall.

We have no tickets. Only several layers of clothing, 50-cent hand-warmers that are the size of tea bags and two large brand-new American flags wrapped around our shoulders. Bought them yesterday at Union Station on a cool gray Martin Luther King Day. Idling outside the station while my wife ducked inside to find flags, the sense of anticipation was palpable. Buses, police, whistles, cabs, groups large and small, young and old, all colors, poured out of the station. A group of little black girls and boys all wearing matching red winter caps posed for pictures as a chaperone answered “Alabama” when asked where they came from. Still waiting in the car, I looked for symbolism or meaning in the words etched in stone high above the three grand archways that mark the entrance to the train station. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” Good enough.

9:05 a.m.

From where we are, downtown, we follow the others. Hundreds at first, a steady, buzzing stream of people. His name is everywhere. Hats, shirts, scarves, signs, stickers, newspapers, store windows. Two blocks later, closer, the residual warmth from the bus is gone. We’re cold. Very, very cold.

Joe McGinniss Jr. and his wife.

Joe McGinniss Jr. and his wife.

Hey! Who’s that?! In the front seat of a black SUV wearing pale blue and looking frail and a bit overwhelmed. Mama Biden. The vice president’s mother. She’s 90-something, delicate and sweet. This moment. Her son. The vice president of the United States. My wife waves to her. They share a smile. Soon after, a few more blocks, we’re forced right instead of straight, the road ahead blocked by National Guardsmen, concrete barriers and camouflaged Humvees. To our right, the road ahead. Behind us, tens of thousands of people marching toward us, redirected apparently from closed entrances closer to the Capitol. All of us headed in one direction. We work our way left, to the edge of the crowd if we can, little margin for error, the current of bodies strong and determined.

9:45 a.m.

We spill out onto a sweeping expanse of pale yellow grass. With thousands of others, we ascend onto the west tip of the Mall, on the slopes of the Washington Monument lawn. Everyone texting, talking, snapping pictures with their handhelds. Progress slows near the top. Once there, it’s clear why. Below us, between where we stand and where we’d like to go, are people. What does almost 2 million people look like? Now I know. Imposing. Breathtaking. Terrifying. Take your pick.

They’re young, too young, some infants and toddlers carted around, shielded from the bitter cold. Old, too old, elderly, leaning on canes, pushed in wheelchairs, a blind man with another at his arm. Entire families. All races. A small group of black women, sorority sisters, stand in a circle and sing an Obama song. We soldier on, no pushing, no shoving.

10:10 a.m.

We’re positioned next to one of the little white trees that dot the landscape. Raisin-sized buds punctuate the many branches. Not an arm’s length between us in any direction. Turn around. A sea of bodies in all directions. We’re deep in it now, with just over two hours to go. The realization that all bets are off. One pop, someone yells “Gun!” one idiot setting off a firecracker hundreds of yards away, and the ripple of panic becomes a tsunami with no way out. It’s not that kind of crowd, not that kind of vibe. But it only takes one. A check of the time. We’re getting close.

10:30 a.m.

Despite the cold and the wind, the midwinter sun does what it can. Something starts to happen on the Jumbotron. We’re suddenly, finally, live. A voice booms through loudspeakers announcing a song. There’s about a four-second delay between the proceedings a mile in the distance, where the Capitol Dome sits, and where we stand, a hundred yards from the Washington Monument.

The hulking Latino man in a black Raiders ski cap and black leather jacket wonders aloud if they’ll boo when Bush is introduced. The arrival of the president of the United States is announced. Maybe they’re saying “Boo-ush”?

Sasha and Malia! Sherbet and pink and royal blue and brown. Beaming on the screen.

Aretha sings.

The moment arrives. Here we go.

A hush follows the roar at the announcement of his arrival. He looks so young.

The oath, an eruption and the speech. The endless shimmering blur of red, white and blue from 2 million American flags. Leaving, someone snaps a piece of the branch from the tree, a keepsake.

Barack Obama takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the 44th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Barack Obama takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the 44th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

As we drift away, a reporter stops my wife and asks her about the day, the speech. She starts to answer, mentions a line or two from the address that stood out. The reporter asks if we are a couple. We are. So does this have special meaning (my wife is African-American, I’m white)? She mentions that our son will turn 2 soon, and her voice cracks, and she apologizes, can’t finish.

A black woman asks for a picture with me and my American flag. She says with a smile, “We’re all one now,” and walks away. Two people hold an elderly black woman overcome with emotion, her head bowed, hand covering her eyes, sobbing.

We avoid a bottleneck of countless bodies near a narrow exit. We reach Constitution Avenue. The sun now obscured by high clouds. The salt of my wife’s tears are chalky white streaks on her brown cheeks.

The scale of this is too grand for words. Millions gather. A planet watches. We all know the meaning, the historical significance, the geopolitical impact that’s possible. I meet a gray-haired couple in their 60s who flew in from El Salvador via Chicago this morning for their first-ever inauguration to testify to that. The little town where they served as election observers is all tin houses with no electricity or running water. This election, this new U.S. president, will change that. The couple tell us that they and the people in that village across the struggling democracy that is El Salvador believe that Obama’s election will change that.

And the moment is deeply personal, too. Someone who looks as much like my wife as any first lady ever has. Someone whose father also worked his whole life only to struggle with multiple sclerosis and watch his body give out in his final years, needing help to button his shirt. The first lady, like my wife, is the daughter of an African-American man who endured the darkest moments of history and never lost his way, never set a bad example, raised a family of good and decent, caring people. This blue-collar African-American first lady and mother watches her husband place his hand on a Bible and take the oath of office, her two little girls, brown and beautiful, by her side. The moment is universal and deeply personal. This day! This brisk, sun-filled moment! And we’re here for it, on the Mall, this dry grass desert that rejoices and blossoms as the rose.

Joe McGinniss Jr. is the author of the novel The Delivery Man.

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