Monday, January 26, 2009

Attending the Inauguration of Barack Obama

My Trip to the Inauguration of Barack Obama–
by Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr., January 26, 2009

This is a bit long for a blog, but so many people have asked me since I got back to tell them what it was like, I am glad I had already set up my blog so I could direct them to it.

As stated earlier, this was the 7th Inauguration I had attended, as a spectator mostly, with various accommodations, friends, weather, crowds, all varying from year to year.

This time, I arrived in the Washington DC area by AMTRAK from Atlanta and was in the area (staying in Springfield, VA with a college friend Giles, his wife Mary and their children) for several days before the actual event. I met people at the train station in Atlanta, and on the train, all headed up for the same event and related activities. There was a lot of euphoria amongst those I met and saw, all planning to be in Washington for the swearing in for sure. Some came great distances, at great expense. Many brought their children. (Many also did not pack well, one woman had to unpack her suitcase as it weighed over the 50 lb. Amtrak limit.)

As it turned out, as the day dawned, I was to journey into the District by myself along with the huge crowd I found myself in the midst of, later estimated at 1.8 million. They said that it was the largest since the inauguration of LBJ in 1965 and none of us could figure out why that many would have come then. Need to research that point. Also then, the inauguration was held on the east side of the Capitol, with far less room and sweeping vistas. It was Reagan who had it changed to the west side in 1981.

Here is my take on the day:

January 20, 2009, Tuesday
Inauguration Day, for Barack H. Obama, 44th President of USA

As the day began, I could not decide when to go in, due to the unprecedented number of people expected to be on the National Mall, my friends’ daughter Susan had left to go in with friends by 6 or 7 A. M. and had already called home by 8:30 and discussed their long trek to get to the mall–they were not there yet-- as they found many METRO stations closed and were routed to an area south of the Capitol. The rest of the members of my host family chose to stay home.

My host, Giles, drove me to the metro stop at Franconia-Springfield, 4 miles from their house. We got there about 9:10 A. M. At the Station, the crowd was walking in, some on the crosswalk to the parking deck, already a huge crowd at that station–packed in–trying to get tickets to ride--with more coming. I figured I just had to get out of the car and take my chances, wondering how I was going to get to the city by 11 A. M. or thereabouts.

As I pondered whether to join the long line trying to get a metro ticket, I encountered a well-dressed couple, equally perplexed, who when asked what they were going to do, said they were going to take a taxi, and it then arrived. I asked if I could come along and share the cost, they said yes, and off we went. Not being used to taxis, it never occurred to me, that even though they had closed the bridges into the District, that taxis and buses were being allowed in.

The taxi was a major stroke of luck.

We were downtown- the taxi was allowed to take the HOV lane onto I–395 which was empty. We were downtown near the Smithsonian by 9:35 or so. I paid 15 dollars for my share, a bargain.

We walked up the ramp, as the taxi had to stop on the Interstate and let us out. No rain, dry, so easy. The road I was on, somewhere near Maine St. was perpendicular to the Smithsonian. I called Mary to report I was there and they were amazed. Susan called me at 9:35 a.m. and I was there and she was amazed at my good luck. (We should have all thought of that before, to take a taxi.) My notes show I was on 10th St.

A crowd walked under the overpass I was on, about 100 people, chanting Obama Obama like a pep rally or sports gathering. It showed the effect his election had on the masses that were arriving by bus, metro rail, and so forth. Some by water taxi across the Potomac.

I proceeded with the orderly crowd and we wound our way due to road blocks, fences, overpasses, down the street and eventually ended up south of the Washington Monument area where there were not many people at that time. I was cold only when I took off my gloves to use the phone or take a photo, but stayed bundled up otherwise. The temperature was probably 20 or so at that time.

After a bit more meandering, and being unable to meet up with the various people I knew were there- I really didn’t try too hard not wanting to lose my good spot. I ended up to watch the events on the Jumbotron (large television screen) on the NW side of the Washington Monument with a clear view of the rear of White House. It was a huge crowd. I stood with a lady named Regina from N. J. with her Blackberry and her cell phone. She spent most of her time trying to find her friends (to no avail) or call her husband to tell him back in N. J. what was going on. Many times the cell phone service went down or busy during the height of the events, as had been predicted.

I was well outside the circle of Flags around the Washington Monument.

The crowd was ok, we were not packed in and had some wiggle room. I did not want to be packed in but did want to see the events unfold on the Jumbotron. These had been placed on the mall on Sunday for the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd-most were respectful, but did boo Bush and Cheney, and applauded Obama et al at various times during the events on TV.

For many people it took on the tone of a religious event, so deep was their devotion. (Later when I described this to a Jewish friend, even he said it sounded like the crowd that gathered for the Sermon on the Mount.)

We watched the TV steadily from 11 A. M. to 12:30 P. M.. They had the close-captioning on, and some people read it out loud. They turned the sound up when the events started picking up. The swearing in itself came at 12:05 a bit late and the Inaugural Address lasted til about 12:30 P.M. I do not recall anything said in the address that appeared memorable to me (and read similar comments later in the newspapers), and it was all so short, for all these folks who came in from all over, although some had spent several days there, like me, already.

Many people I overheard, or asked, or read about, had come to the city just to be there at the moment of Obama’s swearing in. They felt it was such a momentous event, a once-in-a-lifetime thing for them, to be there, and many did not stay for anything else.

At the end of the Address, and before the ceremonies ended–we did not hear Rev. Lowery, or the poet---the crowd around us, a large bunch, turned almost in unison, and began to quietly walk toward the NW corner of the area, toward 17th St and the Mall to Exit. It was a tight squeeze- trees, some barricades, the portalets, a fence, and buses all impeded our leaving the area except through the NW corner. One could have stood their ground- but it would have been hard to stay put. It took well over an hour for me to get out of the area and to a restaurant. The people--- some were on crutches, some in wheelchairs, one lady on an electric scooter, but everyone was nice and calm, otherwise it could have been a real problem. I did not like the tight squeeze into the corner and having to climb up over a concrete road block. But eventually I was out of the area and on the other side of 17th Street.

(One family of three women- granddaughter, daughter and grandmother approached the cement road block and I gently whispered to the grandma that she might not be used to climbing over a cement road block but that was the only way she was going to get out of the area and that I would help her. She needn’t be embarrassed, how can you be embarrassed in a crowd of whom you know no one. I gently pushed her over and her daughter got her down and off they went. I climbed over next.)

I called Giles when on the other side of 17th St., in the side yard of the OAS Building and told him it was like Les Miserable (sp) and the French Revolution and the barricades, just no fighting.

Lots and lots of people, the people just kept coming, and I decided to stay put in the parking lot I then found, and not be pushed up 18th St., the next street open. The huge crowd, largest I had ever been in other than the Olympics–and it was nothing like this--and they kept on coming. Most went up 18th Street North, I decided to wait in the parking lot between the DAR Building and the OAS building and was probably there an hour I guess, just to be safe. (Most people–including me-- took a lot of photos of the crowds, as no one else had seen this many people at one time, in an orderly trek.)

The only ill will was between the Jesus promoters trying to convert folks–they were up in the trees and with bull horns and the OBAMA crowd shouting back with their Obama slogans mostly.

There apparently had been a lot of people behind us in the WWII memorial area, although I did not see them. They also poured into this area. The crowds just kept on coming.

I finally crossed over in front of the Department of the Interior building between 19th and 20th on _______ St. and went up a little ways to a pizza place that miraculously appeared, as most places were closed, in the George Washington Univ. area, the Foggy Bottom Pizzeria I think it was, it was in a building with the World Bank and an IMF sign on front (20th St. side I think). It may have been on G Street.

I ordered two slices of pepperoni pizza and my Mother called at 2:08 p.m. just as I was paying, so that shows that it had taken exactly an hour and a half from the end of the Inaugural Address until I got my food. After I ate, I called her back, my neighbor Lynda and left a message and spoke with Dr. Wade, a friend from my hometown at 2:21 P. M.. who had called at 9:01 A. M. to be sure I was at the Inauguration or en route. I had to report to him that I had indeed been there and seen it all. (He had accompanied me to the George W. Bush Inauguration in 2001.)

Cell phone service had been confused or closed off during some of the events of the day and some messages didn’t appear until after I sat down to eat, hence the return calls.

I re-bundled up and headed out toward the Parade route, it supposedly having started at 2:30. But the crowd was dispersed and I took photos of St. John’s Church at Lafayette Square only a block from the White House and meandered eventually to H and 11th Street, in view of the Old USPO building on Pennsylvania Ave. There were a lot of security check points for the parade and I decided not to try even if I could get in- the lines with tickets were long as well- lots in the newspaper about them later on- caused lots of distress. Lots of people never got in, lots missed it because the parade was so late in the day, etc.

All areas along the parade route, mostly on Pennsylvania Ave. were fenced in, so you could not wander to the parade route at all, or hardly see it, so unlike other Inaugurals that I went to, the public was put at bay due to security and tickets.

Jeff D. who works in D.C. called about this time to ask me if I was really up there and so forth and we agreed to meet for lunch the next day.

Pres. Obama and wife did not show up, walking, til around 4:10 P. M.-- he may be in photos but we were a block away, behind yet another fence, that it’s hard to tell, but we know he came by. Everyone had a cell phone and a digital camera, so you can tell when everyone raised them to shoot that at least they thought the President was coming by.

I was not too disappointed not to see the parade–although in the past inaugurals that was my favorite part, every state putting out their best to show the nation---since it had all been delayed and I hoped the parade went on, even late, for the sake of all the people who were prepared for it, including the Atlanta-area band who raised money, etc. But I do think in the future that they need to rethink the whole parade idea and security, etc. What good is a parade if no one can see it? Or it gets dark?

Since it was late, and darkness comes up there pretty early, I decided since I was alone, to head toward the METRO and try my luck. I went to the METRO Center station–I had no ticket since I had taken a taxi in the morning, so I had to stand in line to get a metro ticket. The machines were confusing, but then the attendant said they had declared the metro free at that point, just so everyone would get out of town I guess. So I got down to the platform. Another crowd was down there. It took several trains before I got on one to Springfield, the end of the BLUE Line. There was a large number of vehicles trying to pick up people at the metro station when Giles arrived to pick me up. We did get back to their house by 6:45 P. M. We then were able to watch all the stuff I missed on TV and hear their versions of it from their day of watching.

As I always talk to people along the way, here are some I met. On the subway (metro) when I sat down to call Giles, a lady who later told me she was part Comanche Indian, named BRIDGET, and she was very talkative about her heritage and her life situation, and took my card and said she would connect up with some genealogy question. Everyone in D.C. seemed friendly on the train and elsewhere, quite amazing to me.

On the Amtrak going back to Atlanta, I met a couple from New Orleans, he was king of the Zulu Mardi Gras club, and they had made the trip and had had trouble with their ticket seating, security, and finding their way, barely got in their seats at the time Biden was sworn in, and almost missed it. Another lady, who sat with us for dinner on the train on Thursday night, whose name is Metty, was from Atlanta, and she has posted her comments on the Inauguration on my blog already, see below under comment.

Other observations: There were of course vendors everywhere. Bought first Obama souvenirs on the first street I got on after getting out of the taxi. Think it was a deck of playing cards. Found some magnets, I Love Obama. T-shirts, etc. everywhere. I also bought what I thought was the Inaugural Medal at a shop on Wed. only to find out it was not the official one, but by the same sculptor, Mellon, but sort of the second tier of medals . . . It will join my collection of Inaugural medals going back to JFK in 1961 (which I did not attend).

In Summary: It was an unreal day, a major day in American history, no matter what you think of the politics, the campaign, etc. The reasons people came were quite amazing, for so short a time and their expectations are yet to be realized.


  1. Ken, it sounds like you had a crazy, wonderful time. It is amazing that so many people can come together peacefully and with what appears to be to have been a minimum of snafus. My friend from Miami went, along with her daughter (my god-daughter) and son. They never made it to the mall, but saw the swearing-in on a Jumbotron somewhere. They reported that they were just happy to be breathing the same air as Obama (and a million or so new friends). What a remarkable event. Thanks for sharing your experiences and observations. Vivian

  2. Ken,

    You might like to see this photo, stitched from 220 separate images - 1,478 megapixels, that shows an amazing view of the crowd and especially the main platform area with Obama delivering the inaugral address and Yo Yo Ma taking a photo with his cell phone:

    Click on the "Full Screen" link below the picture on the page to get a better image.

    - Jim G.

  3. Ken--I'm so glad you posted about your day! I'm happy that you had a good experience and the crowds were all as calm and friendly as they said on TV. I took annual leave and stayed home to watch. It was amazing! I am sorry you didn't hear the poet or Rev. Lowery (his speech was great!) Hope to catch up with you soon and I'll add your blog to my "Google Reader" list.