Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama's inauguration | Great city, great nation; great president?

A worker helps tear down staging along the inauguration parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In my book, Washington is the best city in the United States, perhaps the world. It's where I learned how to use an underground train. It's where I learned to drive like a maniac. It's where I fell in love with urban living.

It's a clean city with interesting and powerful people. And it's the origin of some of the greatest moments and some of the worst policies and best policymakers in American history. I didn't think it could get any better.

But this week, it did.

Barack Obama's inauguration brought together Americans from all states, races and political affiliations. They were there for a common reason: to watch history unfold, to say to their children or grandchildren that they watched - with 2 million others - the culmination of one of the greatest political campaigns in American history.

It's as if my Washington experience has come full circle. During the first month of my residency in the city - after moving to D.C. for graduate school at American University - the front cover of Time magazine was emblazoned with Obama's image and the headline "Why Barack Obama Could Be The Next President." It enumerated the reasons. But it wasn't my magazine; it was my roommate's. I didn't take it seriously. To me, it was another media organization trying to capitalize on someone else's seemingly rapid rise to political stardom.

And my first assignment in "journalism boot camp" at AU was to write a short story about Obama's famous hello-world speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It propelled him into the spotlight.

It was only fitting for me to return for this moment.

But when I arrived at Reagan National Airport on Monday, the city was different. There was a closeness, a personable air that I hadn't felt before. I overheard stories told by people from Canada, Alaska, California, even Mexico and London, who had journeyed to the nation's capital for the same reason I had. We all were alike.

ikea2_2363In D.C.'s Metro system, advertisements for clean wind energy, Ikea home furnishings and, of course, congratulated Obama on his achievement. "Embrace change. Embrace education reform," an Ikea banner said, urging people to buy a new bookcase. Gift shops on K Street, in Georgetown and in the airport were full of Obama memorabilia. Pens. Magnets. T-shirts. Bumper stickers. Canvas bags. Buttons and hats. Was such enthusiasm in place when George W. Bush was sworn in?

On sidewalks and in train cars, chants of "Obama" and "Yes, we can" erupted. Maybe it was enthusiasm. Maybe it was a way to stay warm. Maybe it was both.

And because they were there for the same reason, people helped each other. At the airport Wednesday, a FEMA worker from Tampa, Fla., who worked the inauguration, let children pet his K-9 unit. A man next to me in line for the Capitol viewing area Tuesday helped a pregnant women climb over the fence in order to get in line. Someone dropped her ticket, and a man picked it up, yelled "Check your tickets" and found its rightful owner.

After the ceremony, I did hear some mildly disgruntled tourists. One said he had come "3,000 miles from Los Angeles just to listen to the inauguration on a transistor radio." Some people were enraged that the speaker for one of the JumboTrons had blown during the ceremony.

But still, they were happy just to be there.

I heard disgruntled residents, too. And I felt their pain. They're used to clueless tourists trying to jam their paper Metro cards into the machine. But such an influx of so many people in a such a tight area was too much to bear. "People just don't know how to keep moving," they said. "Don't stop. Push. Push."

But still, they were happy just to be there.

It's encouraging to witness the profound concern and, now, optimism for the nation's future. At 5 Wednesday morning, after awaking at 3:45 a.m. the day before, my TV journalist friend and I hopped out of bed, bundled up and walked a block to a Washington Post dispenser box. It was empty. At 7, we did the same thing. Empty again. Later, we learned that only convenience stores were selling the paper, and the regular editions were already gone. The commemorative edition, at $2 a pop, was still available. I bought one. But they also sold out quickly. Later on Wednesday, the cab driver who gave me a ride to Georgetown told me that The Post's headquarters had sold all of its copies by 5 a.m. Yes, people still care about what happens.

I decided to make this trip as spontaneously as the cheers broke out on the sidewalks. It's saddening to leave. And as I look out the window of a US Airways 737 en route for Orlando, the sun is beginning to set. But it has only risen on what I hope will be a great chapter for our nation.

The Capitol was well-lit during the nights before Inauguration Day. Hmm. I wonder who pays the electric bill.

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