Dispatch January 2009

The Inauguration of Barack Obama

A groundling's-eye view

The Washington Monument stood wreathed in dust kicked up by the masses, as if the Mall were the nation's largest feedlot. Everyone there for today's inauguration wanted a piece of history, and the more ambitious of us imagined taking home something tangible. Of the 2 million present, no more than a quarter million had tickets. The rest of us dreamed of squeezing to the front of the crowd, and perhaps picking up a stray program. Or maybe, like football fans storming the field and pulling down the uprights, we'd rush the podium at the end and each take home a fragment of a presidential seal.

At 9 a.m., when I was still four blocks away from the Mall, the crowds walked silently and purposefully, with a determination that made me think they might have the capacity for podium-rushing after all. They had the dead look in their eyes of men and women preparing for battle, ready to elbow Rosa Parks in the face to get a better view of the swearing-in. I entered the Mall at 18th Street Northwest, an unticketed section, which meant that everyone knew they would have to defend their ground.

Not until the Washington Monument came into view did the crowds swell and take on alarming forms. Turning back became steadily tougher, and at one point the only calm area was around a few PETA pamphleteers, whose monomania ("Thanks for not wearing fur!") was so obviously tiresome that the crowd knew, as if by instinct, that they should give the activists a 20-foot berth. I talked with them briefly, because I thought they were giving out free hot chocolate, and because I wanted a souvenir photo of me hugging a woman in a rabbit suit in front of a shivering mob.

Here and there, military policemen watched the crowds, but they gave no instructions and no warnings. I stumbled on a First Aid tent once, by chance. At crowd bottlenecks, old women ended up having to hop concrete barriers, and the pressure at my back was constant. Just east of the Monument, at the groundling section closest to the ceremony—but still a mile and a half from the Capitol—the crowd assumed Chinese-subway densities. Claustrophobes whined, and an ill-tempered man dragging an all-terrain Segway over my feet said, "Excuse me," in the way that means "excuse you."

At every huge Washington political gathering, the crazies come out in force. Here they were swallowed by the crowd. I don't mean PETA activists, who at least have a point. I mean the woman in Foggy Bottom, marching proudly with a sign that said "You Are Being Watched" and featured interesting quotes from Hitler and Benjamin Franklin. Or the crew of Christian zealots who took up the mantle of the “God Hates Fags” protesters, and whom nearly everyone insulted as they passed by in an impromptu counterprotest.

But these nutbags were few. The effect of the crowd, and of the arduous trek required to get near the action, was to drown them out and filter them away from the prime real estate on the Mall. Anyone unhinged enough to bring a placard onto the Mall and scream all freezing morning about the imperiled soul of Pete Seeger was probably too unhinged to figure out how to get to the better parts of the show.

Presented by

Graeme Wood is an Atlantic staff editor.

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