I've never experienced anything quite like Obama's Inauguration. As I walked to the Capitol from my pal Rodd's place, I was comforted that we were sharing the same path and the same intentions. I'd compare it to the feeling you get on the subway when you're going to a ballgame or a protest: a camaraderie that comes from shared sense of purpose. But that comparison's not quite right. Maybe it was the cold air of the early morning, but my anticipation lacked elation.
Outside the fenced areas was dizzying. A river of people streamed from Union Station, unending, like it was bigger inside than out. But once inside the Purple Zone (I love the name, it sounds like something from a comic book), people simply milled like cattle on a range, maybe a little surprised at how much space there still was. It didn't take much effort to worm my way to a good spot just left of center. Then I stood & waited.
The cold seeped through the layers of clothing. It sapped the crowd &, I think, muffled the energy, even once the ceremony started. At least, I'd expected a roar when Obama entered, like a crowd cheering the home team at a sports arena. There were cheers, but it didn't register on the Richter Scale. When each of the former presidents were announced, we alternated cheers'n'jeers: Carter ("yayyy!") Bush #1 ("grumble..."), Clinton ("YAYYYYYY!") Bush #2 ("Boooooo!"). The lustiness of the last surprised me, since till that point the crowd had played it cool. Then a chorus of "na na, nana na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!" started up. Still, the loudest response overall came not for the Obamas but for their daughters.
And from where I stood, that was the high point of the crowd's energy. The Inauguration seemed to have a weary but satisfied atmosphere. We'd taken terrible punches as a country over the last eight years, & were happy just to be standing as the final bell rang. We wouldn't pogo or hug, we'd just shake each other's hands, slap a few backs, & drift apart so we could get back to work.
That's why Obama's sober speech was appropriate. He wasn't at his best (off the top of my head, I can think of four speeches he's made that were better), but he recognized the moment. He didn't whitewash the dire state of the union, & he refused to offer pat comforts. He also didn't hesitate to criticize the outgoing administration (a friend compared it to Stephen Colbert's roasting of Bush in 2006) or his Democratic predecessor, for that matter.
I didn't walk away ecstatic like I'd expected to. Witnessing the inauguration wasn't quite cathartic for me -- it couldn't purge the last eight years of bile I'd been forced to swallow. So it was a canny choice for Obama to close by alluding to the eve before the Battle of Trenton. (It also allowed him to use cold as a metaphor in his closing: "in this winter of hardship... let us brave the icy currents." That really spoke to the crowd.) By citing that low moment in American history, Obama reminded us that we can soldier on, while simultaneously acknowledging that our struggles may last for years.
Still, I was lucky enough to get my catharsis afterwards. I happened to walk by the Capitol right as Bush's helicopter shuttled him off to his flight out. The sight of his chopper soaring off, & the knowledge that he was truly gone, warmed my heart more than anything Obama said. Na na, nana na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!