Inaugural crowds corraled on the Mall to witness history


A tree near the Smithsonian Castle made for a good view for one inaugural attendee. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
January 21, 2013

The morning sky soufflés up over the Capitol, pushing apart the last indigo smear of night. Sirens whoop-whoop in the 7 o’clock hour, waking a city of ceremonies to its elemental formality. The furs begin to emerge from hibernation and lumber their fancy way downtown, where they will graze in America’s Front Yard, which this holiday weekend is more corral than esplanade. Nowhere but a presidential inauguration can a citizen feel both like a patriot imbued with the unfolding glories of civilization’s greatest nation and like a sheep. Or a cow. Liberty and livestock, together on the Mall on Monday.

Bottlenecking at the fare gates of the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station, the herd inches past posters of Lincoln quotations — advertisements for the Steven Spielberg movie, primers for the inauguration, past and present colliding, colluding in commerce.

“Don’t let go of each other’s hands,” says a fretful mother as her family mounts the escalator.

The inauguration might feel like an actual ceremony to the couch potatoes at home, and to the credentialed and connected folks with ticketed seats beyond the perimeter of black fencing, but to us standing-room-only specks — yawning steam, deciphering glitchy video and audio, straining to spot movement in that faraway pointillist tableau of ceremony — it’s a far more mystical and nebulous experience.

It’s shield-your-eyes bright out here, like it was the first time, four years ago.

The first time has only grown more storybookish in memory: It’s gotten simpler and crisper and more profound. The biblical throngs! The quaking oversoul! That single image tintyped onto your brain — the one of several young African American boys near the Washington Monument, perched high up on bare tree branches for a better view, silhouetted against the light-blue sky.

Inauguration Day 2013 felt very much like reality, not fantasy.

The president will remain the president.

Everybody has to work tomorrow.

Half of us have the flu.

On the Mall, between Fourth and Seventh streets NW in the 9 o’clock hour, meager chants of “Yes we did, again!” do not catch on. Old ladies rest in the crooks of giant tree roots. Children hot-dog themselves in Mylar thermal blankets. A gentleman in fatigues hoists an upside-down U.S. flag, a sign of distress, to warn everyone of the creep of socialism. He is escorted from the Mall by the U.S. Park Police, who say he is marring the view for disabled attendees, and people applaud.

With more than an hour until showtime, presidential programming unspools on the jumbotrons to ease the wait. Here’s a video of Ellen DeGeneres asking everyone to introduce themselves to each other. Here’s a short film on Bo, the White House’s Portuguese water dog. Here’s footage of the president making basket after basket during a game of PIG.

It’s like everyone is in a chilly holding pen at Disney World, waiting for the previous crowd to exit the earlier showing of the 3D space ad­ven­ture spectacular.

And then.

The thing actually begins to happen. A gray sheet of clouds has masked the sun, rendering the scene shadowless, almost black-and-white, as the dais fills with the Cabinet, the Supreme Court justices and Congress, and people are applauding them.

America is very good at two very different things: cynicism and idealism.

For about half an hour, the first falls away.

Sasha and Malia Obama are introduced.

“All right, babies,” says an older woman with big black earmuffs and a fur-trimmed coat.

Out comes Dr. Jill Biden.

“Do your surgery, Dr. Jill!” says the older woman, who may or may not know what kind of doctor Jill Biden is.

Out comes Michelle Obama.

“There she is!” shouts a college student.

Between introductions, the masses are quiet and still. The clapping footsteps of VIPs inside the Capitol project from the speakers and echo between museums, making it seem like the whole country is enshrined in marble.

Then, video of the president, striding toward the outdoors, beyond calm.

“He is in his heaven,” observes a woman in a fur hat.

The president’s first word as he ­emerges on the dais: “Hey.”

And everyone is roaring, exultant, waving little flags, trying to be more than just a pixel on television.

Before introducing Justice Sonia Sotomayor to swear in Vice President Biden, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) says, “Will everyone please stand?” and the standing masses laugh all together. We’re at the inauguration, and yet we’re not. We’re present for history, yet we’re so far away that we’re seeing the same televised images as everyone who stayed home.

A Hispanic woman swears in a white man, and a white man swears in a black man.

What kind of chills are we feeling? Emotional, or hypothermal?

Now the president is delivering the quadrennial pep talk. The oratory, as usual, is lofty and reaching and paradoxical. The president refers to “a never-ending journey,” and one’s mind leaps four, then 40, then 400 years into the future of our adolescent nation, growing ever more perfect, and then leaps back to now, and the four hours it will probably take to get home from this inauguration.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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