January 20, 2009: When the People Came Together, Even Rev. Rick Warren
I Went to DC to See MY President Inaugurated and to Take Photos. I Returned Home to Chicago Knowing I Saw America’s Unity on Display. My Memories on the Day of the Trump Inauguration.
“We gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” I’m writing this as Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the USA. It was 8 years ago when I was in Washington DC to see Barack Obama in the flesh, the 44th U.S. president, to hear those words of “hope” and “unity” on January 20, 2009.
I’m pretty sure I never saw the new president outside a television monitor that day, as vast streams of people flocked into the nation’s capital. I did, however, see him in the flesh two days previously as a tiny dot in the distance after rocking out with Beyoncé, Bono, and Bruce Springsteen. There were so many people. I want to talk about them today.
The air may have been bone-chilling freezing, but the faces were burning with warmth. Just shy of 2 million of them. I must have encountered tens of thousands myself. Looking at pictures now, after 8 years, the memories come back in amber waves. You wouldn’t believe the spirit of optimism. Everyone smiling. Families. Young and old. Black and white. Veterans and hippies. American. No less “American” than today, I suppose, but I’ll bet a pile of Harriet Tubman $20 bills (coming 2020) it was helluva lot more diverse in 2009 and 2013 for Obama. If there were protesters, I didn’t see them or remember them. There was simply a sense of togetherness. You could see the positivity in the ironic homage to George W. Bush in the “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner with Obama’s logo replacing the “Os.”
Through luck and my girlfriend’s connections with a childhood friend who was a congressional aide, we scored tickets for the parade route where Barack and Michelle Obama would memorably, historically, jump out of their limousine to wave to the crowd and walk Pennsylvania Avenue. This scared the bejeezus out of the Secret Service, I’m sure. Not to mention the countless people I heard in the months before and after the election say, “They won’t let him live to be president. Obama’s going to be shot.” People were certain of it. Didn’t happen. For 8 years. I do have memories of a president getting shot, and my mom crying. That was Reagan. People also said a black man wouldn’t be elected, and one was. They say the same thing about a woman president, but we will in my lifetime. I was wrong thinking assuredly Hillary Clinton would be. The United States of America continues to surprise us. But it’s a surprise, I think, based on our preconceptions and often stubborn point of view.
I know there is skepticism. That’s probably human nature, but lately I eschew it. Here’s something I always try to remember: In history and with liberty, we go three steps forward, two steps back. But think of 30 years ago and today. Imagine what it will be like in 2046. For every up, there is a down. This country — this world — is a yo-yo. A rubber band. So after 8 years of one party in the White House, we get, I predict, only 4 years of another. Or get a split Republican-Democrat government in 2 years if people unify, get smart, and change-up congress in 2018. It takes a “big tent” approach and plan, though.
But that’s my partisanship. And that’s not the point today. The point, I believe, is to state simply that it gets better, particularly when people come together. Just some days are dark.
I remember the cold — mid- to upper 20s and windchills in the mid-teens — but Obama-stamped products sold like hotcakes. There were countless Obama t-shirts being hawked by industrious entrepreneurs and street peddlers. I still have a few, and always regret that I went the “cheap” route buying two or three poorly made $5 ones with Obama on the presidential seal — yes, that’s a black man as president, alright — and didn’t get the sharply made “two turntables, a microphone + DJ Barack Obama” t-shirt for $20. I’d say that’s in the top 3 “t-shirts I regret not buying” department. We all have a piece of apparel that got away.
I remember us being turned away from every security checkpoint because no one really knew what the plan was that inauguration. Does DC every really have their entire act together? The websites were confusing. “Grey Zone” was our designated spot. We’d show our parade tickets to a half-dozen security, and they’d all say, “That way,” pointing to what we learned later that afternoon was the completely wrong direction. Where we initially showed up was the right spot. That day, we heard rumors of what would be called “Purplegate: The Purple Tunnel of Doom” where thousands of people couldn’t get to their seats and got stuck in a tunnel due to a security snafu. Our misdirection did get us close to the U.S. Capitol, off to the side with no sight-lines to the podium or even one of the dozens of jumbo-trons set around the National Mall. We simply found ourselves surrounded by folks jumping around, keeping warm, grinning, and waiting.
I ended up hearing Obama’s speech only by patching my phone to my my mom in Oregon who placed her speaker to the TV. Ironically, I was standing probably 200 yards away from where past presidents and dignitaries gathered. The speakers were pointed some other direction, I guess. The speech, which was amazing yet not quite JFK-level, I would eventually hear in its entirety that night at an Atlanta motel after I missed my plane to Chicago, and took an overnight connection home to make it into work on time. I wasn’t using my brain that festive day, nor was security, I guess, as I was allowed through TSA leading to the wrong terminal. Hey, at least a man whose two autobiographies I read is leader of the free world. It’s worth noting that when I read his excellent books that previous year, “Dreams from my Father” and “The Audacity of Hope,” I thought, “This guy thinks a lot like I do. He sees things in shades of grey. He’s optimistic and pragmatic, even if that’s looked down upon in my circles. He’s both cool, and very uncool.”
When the right-wing factions talk about “divisive” Obama, remind them he controversially had had conservative pastor Rev. Rick Warren give his benediction. That was a huge olive branch. I had forgotten until I looked at photos of the swearing in ceremony that I took later that night alone in that airport motel watching Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Like it mattered hearing all the speeches, pomp, and circumstance. Rather than sit on some frigid bleachers that Tuesday, I got to hang with the other 99% who just showed up for free. Just like two days before in the no-cost “We Are One” concert with Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Usher, and U2. (Barack should sure pull in the stars and talent.) Now it felt like a festival, except it didn’t have any music or entertainment, just that people-coming-together VIBE. So when everything ended, and we gave up on our parade tickets, we just stayed warm wandering for hours in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Stayed warm with other people like ourselves who were drifting about, but with no parties to go to. Stayed warm knowing tomorrow had hope. Talking to folks. Sharing stories. Laughing. Looking for bathrooms!
I knew deep in my heart the best and brightest days were ahead.
They still are.