Sharing the inaugural spirit with a lot of regular people


POSTED: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

For a fleeting moment, as I scurried past the media-only gate near the Lincoln Memorial, I wondered if I had made a mistake in eschewing press credentials which would have guaranteed good views and a measure of comfort at events for Barack Obama's inauguration.

The air was saturated with moisture that in summer translates to an oppressive humidity in the District of Columbia. In winter, on that early Sunday morning, the wetness magnified the chill even as my companion and I burned a fair amount of calories run-walking down Virginia Avenue.

The public entrance to the National Mall was still six long blocks away. Having already hoofed about a mile between Metro stations, breathing through a swaddled scarf in a feeble attempt to spare my frozen nub of a nose, I glanced with a bit of longing at the press gate.

Through most of my adult life, the job has kept me on the sidelines of important events, an observer always riding herd on a deadline, always wearing a journalist's hat.

This time, I wanted something else. I wanted to go to Washington as a regular person, to be “;one of the many,”; part of the huddled masses come to witness a singularly historic moment. No note-taking, no interviewing, no pursuit of angles or insights.

Getting to the mall for the pre-inaugural concert served as a dry run for the swearing-in ceremony. We were well aware that a huge swarm of people was expected at public events. Predictions ran as high as 4 million, though as Jan. 20 neared, projections dropped by about half.

Simply knowing the number, however, didn't prepare me for the actuality of millions of live bodies packing the mall, twice the population of Hawaii. I was also unprepared for the intoxicating exhilaration of spending nearly eight frigid hours in a few square feet of space with a whole bunch of happy, shivering people warmed by an understanding that we were sharing a unique experience.

We made friends with families and a couple of young women, graduate students whose pride in their African-American heritage beamed brightly through occasional tears.

On inauguration day, we again stood in the bitter, cold darkness, waiting to get into the Capitol grounds - sectioned by color-coded tickets - for the ceremony. We sang odd songs (”;Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer,”; for one) with our “;blue gate”; comrades to beat off the boredom and pass the time.

Once inside, we realized that clear sight lines were blocked by VIP seating stands, camera equipment and whatnots and settled in front of a Jumbotron screen. We made more friends, took photos for each other, talked story and found common touches.

It wasn't all good. Though most people were respectful and courteous, a few attempted to finagle better viewing positions and bellyached when they couldn't.

People who watched the events on television saw far more than I did on site. For all the effort and expense, I caught only a brief glimpse of the new president.

Now, just three Tuesdays past, the soft glow of the inaugural celebration has given way to the hard-edged business of governing, as it should. But those few days of spirited energy and good will will never fade for those of us who were there.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).