January 22, 2013
— A chilly wind picked up just about the time Barack Obama walked onto the inaugural platform Monday, and the bright day shifted.
From my spot way back on the lawn outside the U.S. Capitol — close enough to see shapes and colors, too far to see expressions — I glanced up at one of the giant screens that showed the president on approach.
He looked different.
Head slightly back, chin slightly up, face free of any evident expression, a gaze that seemed to move beyond what was right in front of him.
"I've never seen him look that way," said a colleague who was also struck by his carriage. "I don't know what word I'd use for it."
That's the word I've settled on for how Obama looked as he prepared to face the world Monday, but it was solemn with something else thrown in, some hardened resolve maybe, a recognition that this was not only his second inauguration but his last one, a step toward the end.
Inaugurations are, by definition, beginnings, but under the shifting skies of Washington on Monday, this one came with a taste of the elegiac, like one of those sunny Chicago August days when suddenly, you swear, you feel a nip of winter ride in on the breeze like a warning:
Urgent. Time is short. Do what you need to do. Now or never.
Sure, the inauguration was plenty festive, in the way of any pageant that celebrates the important and the self-important. Flags and trumpets, speeches and songs, furs and bling, reams of red-white-and-blue bunting.
There was sufficient applause, at all the right moments.
First lady Michelle Obama's arrival on the platform drew cheers (along with a few remarks like one from a woman near me: "So she's into bangs now?").
Beyonce's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" stirred a few tears.
From out in the crowd came some chants of "O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!" but like the cheers and tears, the chants didn't last long.
There was something muted about the celebration, though not, as far as I could tell, because the people who showed up didn't care. If anything, I sensed, they cared more.
Now or never.
Shuffling away from the Capitol with the mob, through the litter of used coffee cups (where were the garbage cans?), I talked to a lot of people. They were happy. When I asked if they had a favorite inaugural moment, they all did, though not the same one.
"The poem," said a white woman from North Carolina. (She meant "One Today," by Richard Blanco, an openly gay Cuban-American.)
"Seeing a Hispanic woman swearing in Joe Biden," said a black woman from Washington, D.C. (She meant Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.)
"I liked the way Obama singled people out," said Denise L. Cook, of Los Angeles, by which she meant lines from his speech like these:
"Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. ...
"Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity."
My favorite moment came after the inauguration. In the milling crowd that waited for the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, I ran into some kids from The Champion School in Stone Mountain, Ga. One was an 11-year-old boy named Mohamed.
I asked if he had a favorite inauguration moment.
"That black lady who spoke second," he said.
Myrlie Evers-Williams? I asked. The woman who gave the invocation? Yes, her. I asked if he knew anything about her. He said no, but she had some interesting things to say about African-Americans.
I told him how her husband, Medgar Evers, had been shot to death 50 years ago this year, in his driveway in Mississippi by a Ku Klux Klansman.
"Did he go to jail?" Mohamed asked.
He did, I told him. Many years later. Because Medgar Evers' widow, Myrlie, wouldn't let it go.
Mohamed looked thoughtful.
"She wouldn't stop till he got some respect?"
Inaugurations are tough for cynics. They're a day for big thoughts and big words and beliefs that promises will come true. They're for using words like America, majesty, hope, peace, equality, freedom, and using them without irony.
But within minutes of the end of the inauguration, the National Mall was almost empty and the trash collectors were out. The visitors would soon be gone. The regular work of government would soon resume. The wind was still chilly.
Party over. Now or never.
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