On feeling American for the first time, or: Swept away by one day of national optimism

Obama's inaugural: I was there

6 minute read
Now we're part of history too.
Now we're part of history too.
We arrive in downtown Washington, D.C. before sunrise, and are greeted by dark cold wind and blinding sirens. The police are determined to make their powerful presence felt. They speed past shivering hordes, blaring bizarre-sounding sirens at deafening volumes. Secret Service vehicles of various colors and sizes are also plentiful, as are National Guard troops. But the authorities too are visibly excited by the event, and can be seen from their rooftop perches snapping photos with their personal digital cameras.

We stand in "line" at the intersection of G Street and Seventh, hoping to get through security close to the Capitol building. It starts out as a polite queue but soon coalesces into a 2,000-plus-person glob trying to squeeze into a gate that admits two people at a time. Almost two hours pass, and we haven't moved much. As more and more try to cram, things get denser and denser. It's still dark and, since we're standing in one place, our toes start to freeze.

One person passes out and people panic, yelling "911!" while pointing to the location of the fallen one. An ambulance tries to split through the crowd, but we can't sardine much tighter than we already are. Tempers rise slightly and the pushing gets more aggressive, but it's only after someone vomits behind me that we decide to bail out of the area and seek a different gate.

A drop in King's river

Eventually we must circle around the parade path in order to reach the mall. Walking thaws our toes; excitement warms our hearts. Walking down Washington's avenues, packed wall-to-wall with colorful hats and skin colors, I felt like a drop in Martin Luther King's "mighty river of freedom and opportunity."

As the sun rises, people break into spontaneous chants: "O-BA-MA!" "Fired up? Ready to go!" Everyone is in a good mood: singing, marching, locking arms, holding gloved hands, sharing stories and political opinions.

Feelings of pride and anticipation intensify as we catch glimpses of D.C.'s famous symbolic landmarks: the White House, the Washington Monument, the Capitol. The stoic, pure marble columns, cool and proud, tower above us, watching as history marches forward.

Booing Bush and Cheney

We see only one set of protesters: a group of orange-clad men with black plastic bags over their heads, calling for the closure of Guantanamo. The booing at Bush is rather mild whenever he appears on the Jumbo-tron. (After the ceremony, as he flew away in a helicopter, we all sang, "Na na na, hey hey, good bye!") Cheney is booed much louder. But overall, their reception is less scathing than I expected; people really are moving past what Obama calls "childish" politics.

I find Obama's speech moving and inspirational. Strong, somber, determined, motivating. Exactly what we need. It flies by; I wish it were longer. I listen hard for quotations that will stick in the lexicon, but I can't pick out any outright gems. But there are no clichés either.

I love hearing chamber music played in front of the entire country. Yo Yo is truly a star. So is Perlman, although not as much any more. Bravo also to McGill and Montero, as well as John Williams. I wish the quartet had opened with more of an ear-catcher, though. Its slow beautiful flowy introduction failed to grab many listeners from the outset. One man in front of me used the opportunity to go grab a hot dog.

Following Obama's address, everyone starts filing out, ignoring the poet Elizabeth Alexander (she lacked passion) and pausing only for the National Anthem. It takes two hours to leave the area, but everyone is in high spirits, happily marching, proud to have witnessed an optimistic point in our country's history.

An "'other' just like me

I first became interested in Obama when I saw his face on the cover of Newsweek in 2005. I identified with him immediately— a leader who, just like me, has a strange name, dark skin and, if I may say so myself, a dashing smile. He was an "other"— not a Jones or a Smith, not a Bush or a Clinton. As an immigrant to this country, recently naturalized, I never quite identified myself as American. But since I left Israel, my homeland, I never quite felt at home when returning to visit there, either.

But marching down with the throngs into the National Mall on January 20th, 2009, I suddenly felt a surge of pride to be American, to have voted for this inspiring and visionary new person, and to be a part of the world's leading country.

I flew in from California into Philadelphia for the celebration. Instead of driving straight to D.C., we made the pilgrimage into a road trip. Two of our stops along the way were important sites in the long struggle that made the inauguration of a black president possible. We drove out to Gettysburg, where thousands gave their lives in a battle for unity and freedom. We stood at the hill where Lincoln talked about "unfinished work" and "government for the people."

If it weren't for John Brown…

We also stopped at Harper's Ferry, where John Brown and his posse launched a revolt to free the slaves— an event that helped spark the Civil War. What would these martyrs say about how much we have progressed? One historical re-enactor told us at Harper's Ferry, "If it weren't for this, Obama would be for sale today instead of getting inaugurated."

Another chilling thought: We have seen how swiftly change can come. Who would have thought that King's dream would be fulfilled in less than half a century? But is there also the potential for things to reverse course just as fast or faster? We must keep our guard up. And as long as I'm on a pessimistic paragraph, I also want to caution against leader-worship. Let us judge Obama by his actions. But of this I am less worried. I count on the Republicans to check his efforts along the way.

There will be plenty of time for that. Today was a day of celebration, of boundless collective optimism and confidence in government— something I've never experienced before.

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