At the Inauguration

Hubby and I were in the crowd of two million or so witnesses to Barack Obama’s inauguration yesterday. If you’ve seen the satellite pictures, we were in the lobe of humanity to the left (north) of the Washington Monument. If you squint, you can see us waving.

I doubt I’ll remember much of the program, since even now I have to go back to printed record to see what was said. The new president’s speech didn’t live up to the hype, though my reaction and the crowd’s was warmest when he spoke of restoring America’s reputation and place among the nations. The orchestral work was cliche, and the prayers — flabby and anachronistic respectively — wanted for the gravity the occasion demanded. The less said about the poem the better. Ditto the stumbled oath. Aretha Franklin’s presence — in part because of her charisma, the warm emotional associations so many of us have with her music and the audacity of that hat — was the most human and sublime element of all. On stage that is. I came for the crowds; I could have seen the proceedings from the warmth of our apartment.

I wanted to be in the crowd because I wanted to feel something positive about the new administration and feel a visceral proof that the old one was gone. Yes, people booed the jumbotrons whenever an image of then-President Bush came on. I was among them. Some have criticized this as bad manners and indecorous, but seeing how walled-off and unresponsive — and damaging — the last Administration was, I felt it was the last and best chance many of us had to let Mr. Bush know how we felt. (I didn’t join the one-fingered salute to his helicopter as it passed overhead. Funny though: nobody had to tell us it was him.)  But I could have seen that coming.

I didn’t expect or suspect the deep serenity of the crowd. It was so big but quiet. People cheered for Mr. and Mrs. Obama and jeered Mr. Bush but for the most part it was pretty quiet. So quiet you could hear people say “excuse me” for bumping into one another. There was a certain “the nations shall go to my holy mountain” quality, and that sticks with me. And if there was anything messianic about President Obama’s inauguration, it came from and rests in the people.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Thanks for your observations especially as someone who only had a short distance to travel. I love the image of everyone being so quiet that you could hear them being polite Actually Americans being quiet and polite is a pretty amazing thing. What I want to know was what was the best / craziest swag that you saw.

  2. That’s a tough one. There wasn’t the level of merchandising I would have expected and very few costumes. Very few protesters for that matter: a handful of bullhorn-wielding preachers and a few calling for George Bush’s arrest for war crimes.

    But the best swag? One reporter had a microphone emblazoned with BBC on three sides; that was pretty nice.

  3. Sadly I had a few run-ins with not-so-polite people. When my party stopped to converse and figure out our plans one couple began screaming at us for trying to cut in line. When a deaf friend was moving around to try and get a better view of the jumbotron’s captions, a woman said with a very unkind voice, “can your friend please stop moving? he’s in my way.”

    But other than a few people whose sense of privilege was greater than their sense of common humanity, though, most people were really nice to each other.

  4. The angry couple was in the line at 12th street–a line either to get to the Mall or the Parade Grounds. (I’m not sure which, we moved on.) The snippity woman was on the Mall with us, and we were very close to the Washington Monument. I should point out that snippity woman’s attitude was exceeded by the graciousness of another woman who said, “please tell your friend there’s a spot next to me with a very good view.”

  5. “I didn’t expect or suspect the deep serenity of the crowd.”

    Nor did I, but it was definitely there. Even at work, with the crowd gathered around the television, there was a deep, anticipatory silence … kind of a reverent joy or relief. Applause afterward, but even while filing out of the room, there was peace — not even a murmur until we reached the elevator.

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