Reflections on the Inauguration

Former Palo Alto Online director meets cross-section of America during historic event

I didn't decide to attend the Inauguration until New Year's Eve. I had worked on the Obama campaign all year, starting with phone banking for the California primary and ending with canvassing in Longmont, Colo., the week before the election. When I returned home Nov. 5, I envisioned myself celebrating the Inauguration in Palo Alto with friends, back to "normal life."

But after the campaign was over and all that was left was the pile of Obama-related e-mails and my Obama shrine of memorabilia, I felt a persistent pull. The logistics of planning such a trip seemed daunting, though, and I was told by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo's office that they had too many requests for their Inauguration ticket lottery when I sent in my name.

Then on New Year's Eve, I learned that my good friend was planning to meet up with her college-student daughter and "just go" to the Inauguration, with no tickets to anything. And she had an extra train ticket from New York to Washington, D.C. And we would have a place to stay. I decided that instant. I had gone to high school in Washington, D.C., and have a high concentration of friends and relatives there. So two days later I booked a flight for $359 to New York and back from D.C. to SFO.

When I arrived in New York, the anticipation of the Inauguration was palpable. The elaborate descriptions of Inaugural logistics and festivities eclipsed even the drama of the US Airways plane gliding into the Hudson less than 24 hours before.

We rode the train to Washington and when we all poured out of the train in Union Station, the energy was electric. We ran into two fellow Palo Altans (one being developer Jim Baer) and a college friend who is a journalist in D.C. Actors Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon walked by with their family. It gave a sense of a huge yet intimate event.

Until the week before the Inauguration, the only tickets we had were of the travel variety. But luck was on our side. My travel mate decided she wanted to attend one of the regional balls and suggested we act on the ball e-mails we had both received that day. Then the luckiest stroke of all: A friend and fellow campaign volunteer offered us swearing-in tickets at the last minute. Wow.

Wading through the Inaugural "merch" stands outside Union Station and through the sea of fresh arrivals fueled me with the energy we would need to navigate the logistical and emotional landscape of the next 36 hours. There were many stunning middle-aged black women in fur coats, bundled up babies in strollers, blind people, young people that looked like D.C. staffer types, a man with more dreadlocks than I had ever seen.

We headed to Cleveland Park on the Metro to connect with our kind hostess who had about six house guests. Another Palo Altan, who was staying around the corner in her childhood home, had kindly picked up our Western Ball tickets. We drove off to a party at a friend's house, where a video of the Lincoln Memorial concert was on TV. Champagne flowed. Our hostess was wearing a skirt made of Obama lawn signs. I met an ambassador to somewhere and the daughter of one of our son's former teachers.

That night, my inaugural outfit was ready for my 5:30 a.m. alarm: long underwear, fleece-lined boots, down coat, hat, gloves, foot- and hand-warmers, scarf. We had nuts, cheese sticks and apple slices in our pockets, along with cell phones, cameras, ID, map and tickets to the standing area of the Yellow Section 15. (It was fortunate I'd sliced the apples; whole apples were forbidden by security.)

We walked down the hill to the subway at about 6:30 a.m., yogurt and granola in our bellies, and used the Metro tickets we had purchased the day before without a hitch. (We even got seats on the Metro.) The crowds swelled and then emptied as people got off at different stops, depending on their chosen destinations. We found our way to the Yellow Gate and waited in line at about 7:15. Only 4 hours and 15 minutes to go!

Then — as would be the case throughout the day — the bonding started with complete strangers. For some reason, the groups in front of us and behind us were both from Maine, though they didn't know each other. I turned out to know people in common with each group. I felt a tinge of sadness when we suddenly parted to go through security.

Then came more waiting, more people from Maine, Jeff and Heidi from Chicago who were expecting their second child, identical twins who were videotaping the ceremony, a young female State Department staff person and a lobbyist for AT&T named Bob who had met with Barack Obama at length when Obama was an Illinois state senator. Bob said he was utterly impressed with Obama's decision-making process.

We started to feel like a group, a pod, of about 12 people. Some people ended up talking more with the person they met there than the person they had come with. Everyone was really nice, sharing food, their cell phones, happy to duck to allow better views for those behind them. It was like people were your friends, and you were accountable to them and they to you.

In Yellow Section 15, populated with a lot of campaign volunteers like us, people broke into call and response: "Fired Up?" "Ready to Go." "Fired up?" "Ready to Go."

We listened as the San Francisco Girls and Boys Chorus sang. Time floated by. Electronic transmission of texts and voicemails kept coming in unpredictable clumps from friends and relatives on the mall and far away. "What section are you in?" "I am in the masses." "Change of plans." "Amazing day."

A leafless tree obscured our view of our Jumbotron, but we were fortunate to have a good sightline, albeit distant, of the podium in front of the Capitol building. Then came Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman's Copland arrangement, Aretha Franklin, the parade of dignitaries including Sen. Edward Kennedy, the invocation, Feinstein (I thought of the movie "Milk" and the historic moment when she delivered the news about Mayor Moscone and Milk when I was newly in San Francisco), and finally complete quiet in the midst of the almost 2 million people. The moment had actually arrived. I was standing in Barack Obama's presence and could actually see him on the podium.

During the speech, there was a feeling of hanging on his every word. Though people cheered at various parts, we could always hear what he was saying. We were in rapt attention. It was like we were there holding him, supporting him, making the space for him to speak.

And then, his speech was over. Obama was actually our president! And somehow, we all felt better. The state-department staff person initiated a group hug. Then when the poem began, many started wandering away down the Mall. We moved up to the front of our section and listened intently to the poem and to the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery's benediction. From the poem to the benediction, it was dreamy and magical to me. It felt as though things were opening up, and people moved as if part of a flow.

Then came what was the high point of the whole experience for me: wandering down the Mall toward the Washington Monument to meet our friends at a designated location for lunch. People all around us were jubilant. There was a joy that was so penetrating, it was as if it had gone through all of our cells and we were all infused with it.

We paused at a Jumbotron, met a gentleman from Ghana and his family (who worked in Providence and lived in New Bedford) and together we watched the now former President George Bush and wife Laura board the helicopter after the Obamas graciously said goodbye. The helicopter roared overhead. We embraced and took pictures together before departing. I did not want to leave these strangers with whom we had shared this poignant moment.

People were climbing on statues, dancing on the National Mall Reflecting Pool ice, waving their flags, selling their buttons. Everyone (except the people who couldn't find their "people") was smiling. People were hugging strangers. I felt like I was floating down the Mall. We randomly went up to people to swap picture-taking and stories — where they were from, what brought them there: Bonnie, a middle-aged white woman from Chicago, had worked on the campaign for many weeks in Benton Harbor, Mich., and drove down to Chicago when the polls closed, arriving at Grant Park as people were leaving. She decided right then to give herself a trip to the Inauguration for her 60th birthday. Evelyn, an older African American woman from Baltimore, said she couldn't have been any other place that day. It was very cold outside and, as they say, warm in my heart.

We bought copies of the Inaugural edition of the Washington Post, moved slowly in the crowds on 18th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue. The streets were filled with used hand-warmers and tired people. We took the Metro back "home" for a respite and tea before dressing and heading out to the ball, which would start at 8 p.m. The Western Ball — like most of the regional balls — was at the Washington Convention Center. The balls had staggered start times to allow the Obamas to visit them all. We were glad ours started early.

There were all kinds of people there from Seattle, L.A., Texas, D.C., Atlanta, the Bay Area and all kinds of gowns and formal wear. It was a huge event, but we all talked to each other without hesitation. Marc Anthony performed, J Lo came and sang, Joe and Jill Biden danced on the stage and then finally, at about 11:30 p.m., President and Mrs. Obama joined our ball and embraced as they swirled elegantly on the stage. We couldn't see them directly, but we shared the thrill and power of being there together.

As we waited for the Metro, a young woman said she had found four ball tickets in the subway. She felt lucky. Packed like sardines, we all headed home exhausted, happy and hopeful. When I reached home, it was 1:30 a.m., and I too felt so lucky to have been part of it all.

Watching the news Wednesday and seeing what President Obama's been doing, I can't believe it. I'm pinching myself. I don't think he thinks Washington is the center of the universe. He appreciates what can happen throughout the country to remake America. We as ordinary citizens were empowered. It was true in the campaign, it was true in the Inauguration and I fully expect it to be true in the implementation phase.

As I continue to reflect on the Inauguration and what it means for our country, there are parts of President Obama's speech that have stayed with me, parts that when I heard them created a sensation that moved through me.

I felt hope, confidence and relief at his mix of realism, hope and certitude when he said: "Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met."

And when he talked about picking ourselves up and beginning the work of remaking America, I felt, "OK, yes, that is what it is time to do. The wait is over. It's a relief, but also a steeling up. We need to act, and that means me, too. I have a responsibility."

When he spoke of being a friend of each nation and "every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity," the part that resonated with me was the idea that we are open to everyone but that we do have some immutable standards.

The day after the Inauguration, I realized that I'd had a much smoother experience than a lot of people. My cousin's son ended up stuck in the "tunnel of doom" with purple-ticket holders who never made it to their section. My brother-in-law hit a road block, and I met an older black man and his daughter who took refuge in the Smithsonian where it was warm and watched the ceremony on TV. I met a Seattle group at the Western Ball whose friend got the flu so badly she went to the emergency room the night before and couldn't make it to the swearing in.

Some of them felt really badly to have "missed it" but really, they didn't "miss it." They were all there, part of this momentous event as were all the people who watched it on TV, whether in the United States or Australia or Kenya. All part of that immense gathering of humanity, knit together at that historic moment.

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Like this comment
Posted by Debbie Ford-Scriba
a resident of another community
on Jan 23, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Great recap, Lisa! So glad you could be there to experience it all.

Like this comment
Posted by Chris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 24, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Wonderful observations. Reading this, I feel like I was there.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 25, 2009 at 6:46 am

Here is to the memory and the future Web Link

Good luck

Like this comment
Posted by Lori
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jan 26, 2009 at 10:34 am

Wow, I could FEEL the icy sunlight in these photos. Great moments, all of them. Thanks for the sneak peek at history that many of us could not enjoy in person.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 26, 2009 at 11:08 am

We were in Washington for Inauguration Weekend and Inauguration Day. The last six paragraphs of your essay succinctly and accurately reflect our experience too. The pervasive euphoria was uplifting-- and a hopeful sign for the future. Thanks for your fine essay and photographs.


Like this comment
Posted by Lois
a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Keep up the good work. I know what you mean because Obama so want us to work together as a nation and republicans don't want to see this. Just like the health plan hopefully it will stay and improve along the way one thing for sure it will keep the drug companies from holding us hostage with their prices. These drug and insurance companies have had us doing socialized prescriptions for years how is it that the states where salaries are higher we are paying a higher price for our prescriptions the very same pills than the states where the salaries are lower. I moved from California to Texas for one year the prescription I was paying $180.00 per month in Texas cost me not even half that much in Texas the very same pills down to the color and shape.
Something is very wrong with our moral core here in America some of us not wanting everyone to be able to have good medical care. First of all the people including the people in congress and their families we need to all be in the very same health and prescription plan. If we keep this health plan then there will be no need for some of these senators to lobby for these drug and insurance companies who are driven by stock prices for their clients.

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