WASHINGTON — I got a bird’s-eye view.
And I had to brave a few moments of real panic as the crowd I got caught up in teetered on the ledge of a riotous stampede — more than once.
I was warned to get to President Barack Obama’s inauguration early. The crowds would swell to enormous sizes. Not surprising. It’s been like that since I arrived.
So I got to bed early Monday night. I sure didn’t mind after a long day chasing congressmen and their constituents in their offices.
I set off for the inauguration about 7:15 a.m. and walked about two miles to the Capitol. I didn’t trust even public transportation. The trains were packed with humanity Monday — I knew it would be like that, but on steroids Tuesday. I’m not so crazy to think a cab would be better.
It’s cold here, but it’s not much of a walk. I made good time. I got there about 7:45 a.m. and saw the masses going in every direction around Third, Second and First streets.
My first clue something was amiss came when I’d ask one of D.C.’s finest for directions. I had tickets to the so-called Purple Area, meaning I would have a good, close view of the inauguration. Not the best seats, but pretty darned good.
None of those cops appeared to have much of an idea. I showed them the map I had that came with my invitation, which looked like the sort of program you’d receive at a prestigious university’s graduation. One nice cop told me to get over to First Street.
I turned the corner at First and slammed into a wall of people. And would remain there at First and D streets for another few hours.
I never quite figured out what happened, there were all sorts of conflicting reports from fellow inaugural-goers — like one huge game of outdoors speakerphone.
Not all the Blackberries nor all the iPhones in the world could answer why we weren’t moving.
So we made friends, hopped on our feet to stay warm and chit-chatted to pass the time.
Two of our crowd buddies ended up bailing fairly early when they were told by others going in the other direction that the “Silver Seat” people had to get in through Third Street. The Silver Seats were a bit farther back from the Purple Area.
I still had Emily from San Luis Obispo to talk to and ponder why we weren’t moving.
Then the first ambulance had to get through. We were already jammed together. There’s a fraternal sense of American togetherness here. For many, it’s gone beyond just Obama idolization; these are Americans eager to get on with the business of renewing the country we love.
We are bonded by our desire to personally see history without the annoyingly superficial analysis from insta-pundits on TV. We wanted to see this for ourselves. And most of us were ready to withstand the worst kinds of punishment to do that.
If you haven’t bailed after a couple of hours there’s a sense that you’re going to get what you want no matter what it takes. In the other words, I earned this.
Several more ambulances would have to pass through. A D.C. firefighter stood on a platform and tried to direct the crowd this way or that way, depending on which way the ambulance had to go, which, unfortunately for me, was usually in a direction that pushed me farther against the iron of a crowd-control barrier.
I felt I would be crushed. And then it flashed through my mind: What if this crowd grows unruly? The firefighter begged the crowd to move so paramedics could get to a stroke victim. I saw one woman, obviously pained, limp through the crowd on the strength of a friend, face to face, as he whispered comforting reassurances to her. Then I lost my crowd buddy, but I had scarier things to think about. Was I going to get crushed? One woman barked at me to shut up as I tried to ask an officer for a thread of information about the direction of this crowd. Were the gates closed now? Would they ever be reopened? Would I miss the inauguration? It was nudging close to 11 a.m. Frustration was beginning to settle in as some chanted “Let us in.”
Then someone managed to get a view over the steady river of people flowing across D Street and noticed the crowd was moving along First Street toward the sign “Purple Area.” One very brave and assertive woman said, “OK, we can do this. One at a time, single file. Follow me and we’ll push through.” I joined in and looked over — I found my crowd-buddy Emily. “Let’s go,” I said. “Follow her.”
We shoved our way through the rushing stream of people and then — jailbreak! It was like the running of the bulls. Emily and I laughed, “The buddy system works!”
Then we hit more bottlenecks. Which way do we get in? Again, the police had no clue. Obviously frustrated and desperately wanting to help us they radioed their supervisors in vain to get directions. None were forthcoming. But we figured out where the tiny entrance was and one of the taller fellows in the crowd informed us it was moving, but slowly.
Would we make it in time? The minutes kept ticking by quickly as they always do when you need to get somewhere. We crunched together through the bottleneck, but this time, with a sense that we might finally get to our destination, the pressed flesh didn’t feel as awkward or scary.
When we got to the entrance we flashed our purple tickets and sprinted to the metal detectors. There were dozens and it was fairly easy to get through. This was no TSA line. I just had to spread out my arms with my coat open. And then I dashed over to the Purple Area only to find all of the good views taken.
Amazingly, I found myself scaling a tall wall to get a terrible view through the branches of a few trees. I’m not sure how I got up there. Adrenalin’s a wonder. But I could at least hear. It was just 10 minutes before the proceedings began. They were just introducing the dignitaries. I felt embarrassed as the crowd booed President Bush. I understand the indignation, but it felt tacky. It was only compounded by the exultant cheers for Obama when he was announced, followed by chants of his name. While it’s a stirring moment at a campaign rally, here it felt askew.
When Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren was announced some scattered boos met him as well, but he turned those jeers into cheers as he capped off his invocation with the “Our Father” prayer. Shrewd move. It’s hard to boo the “Our Father.” Besides, he sounded the right tones of bipartisanship, as he can so eloquently do, and he recognized the historic gravity of swearing in our first African American president. It was a nice touch when he noted that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was cheering from heaven.
I looked over and saw a silver-haired, elderly man in an Obama baseball cap climbing a tree to get a better view and then watching with binoculars. It struck me how desperate the crowd was to see their new president. As Aretha Franklin sang “My Country Tis of Thee” as only she can, I saw another man offer his shoulder for a stranger to step on so he could get down from a tree.
Then Vice President Joe Biden was sworn in, whetting the crowd’s already ravenous appetite for the main attraction.
Still, Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, Gabriela Montero and Itzhak Perlman captivated the crowd with a John Williams score that sounded at first mournful, almost elegiac, before it grew light, celebratory, whimsical.
Then came “the moment.” The new presidential oath of office. No matter what your political leaning this occasion can do nothing but swell your heart with pride. The civil and peaceful exchange of power. It’s electrifying. And when this simple oath was finished — a new president! Another new beginning in a country founded on revolution. One supporter standing on a monument waved Old Glory in the stinging wind and I felt such pride in my country. The crowd erupted into chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma.”
Then the new president gave us the good-news, bad-news routine. We’re at a terrible crossroads, but we’ve been there before, and if we have the wherewithal we can overcome.
Some of my favorite moments in the speech:
“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”
And: “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”
Many in the crowd may have been in a mood for a rally stemwinder, and there were parts that sounded like a stump speech, but, overall, I think its respectful elegance yet forceful call to action will make it one of his more memorable ones. In the days to come, expect to hear more from our new leader about how we can contribute to our country’s renewal. The first step will be turning to our neighbors and asking how we can help, particularly our less fortunate ones.
That harrowing experience in the crowd in the morning reinforced one thing for me: As Warren said, we are bonded by freedom.
And we all care about each other a lot more than we’re sometimes willing to admit.
PAUL ANDERSON is the city editor for the Daily Pilot. He may be reached at (714) 966-4633 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.