At Obama’s Inauguration

What do I mean when I say that I attended the inauguration of Barack Obama?  It means that I was, in fact, physically on the National Mall, about three blocks or so from the west side of the Capitol where the oath of office was administered to the new president.  I could tell it was Obama to whom the oath was administered because I saw figures moving about on the platform whose movements appeared to correspond to those shown on the JumboTron screen about a hundred yards to my left.  So it was like watching the inauguration on TV at home, except that I was cold, I had waited on line for about three hours, in circumstances I will describe in a bit, and I had a direct line of sight to the inaugural platform.

All that said—and not wanting to give the impression that my role models have become Sixty Minutes’ Andy Rooney or Dennis the Menace’s grouchy next-door neighbor, Mr. Wilson—I was thrilled to be there.  It was thrilling that fifty years after the Army had to be called in to integrate a Little Rock high school, 45 years after it took a vote of Congress to secure the right for blacks to vote, a black man was elected president.  It was equally remarkable that we had elected him, that tens of millions of people, many of them white, voted for a thinly-experienced, mixed-race African American with a foreign-sounding name, the product of a marriage that would have subjected his parents to criminal prosecution if he had been born in Virginia—more than enough to outweigh the millions I expected to vote against him for all those reasons.  It was exciting to be part of it, to pass through the city’s monumental core that is an everyday part of our lives, sharing the event with hundreds of thousands of people from around the country and the world, for whom just coming to Washington was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But if, on that score, being at the Inauguration was thrilling, it was on another score a disquieting experience.  Standing on line in thirty-degree weather gives you a lot of time to think dark as well as uplifting thoughts.  No area’s police are more experienced at dealing with massive gatherings than the Washington force.  Lord knows they had plenty of notice: the Constitution prescribes the exact date and time for the swearing-in of new presidents.  And although the crowd was large, a little under two million, there had been predictions of crowd twice that and more.  Not only that, but with respect to the people in the ticketed sections, authorities knew exactly the maximum potential attendance: it was the number of tickets they printed, 240,000.

But with all that, it is no exaggeration to describe the process of admitting people to these ticketed areas as a fiasco.  Lines for the various ticketed sections of the Mall snaked for blocks, the result, supposedly, of the security requirements and the time required to pass people through metal detectors at each section’s entry gate.  In my line, waiting to get into the “Silver” section, we stood perhaps forty or fifty abreast across 3rd Street SW.  In the course of two hours between 9 and 11 am, we moved perhaps a half-block closer to the gate, which was across Independence Avenue from where we stood.

Our situation was not, however, the worst.  An account in The New Republic of the wait for admission into the Purple section reported that:

Tens of thousands of people were snaking in a rough line that started at the entrance on 1st Street and Constitution, stretched down into a tunnel at 3rd and D Streets, NW, and peaked all the way out the other end and kept going. For hours, we stood in this line… the line was relatively orderly despite the lack of police officers or other officials to control the crowd. But let me repeat that last part: In a tunnel filled with thousands of people, we saw not a single cop, inauguration worker, or EMT over the course of several hours… Finally, the line, which by this time had widened to fill the tunnel from wall to wall as order broke down, surged forward. We emerged into the light, only to find that there was no line to speak of any more—just a single undifferentiated mass of people trying to force themselves around a corner and down 1st Street toward the Purple Gate…

Soon it became clear that the gate had been shut. No one was being admitted to the Purple section. Thousands of people within sight of the Capitol were essentially stuck, with those in front either trying to retreat or hoping the gate would re-open, while those behind continued to push forward…The crowd turned agitated. A man with an iPhone announced that Biden had just been sworn in—as it was, even though the Capitol was within sight, we could hear nothing. The gate seemed so close, but people packed every inch of the 50-yard radius around the gate… The man with the iPhone asked everyone to quiet down. People held cell phones to their ears and through the tinny broadcast of half a dozen mobiles, I tried to listen as Barack Obama took the oath of office. A boom went off as the Army began its salute. A couple people cheered weakly, while others grumbled and a few cried, having come to Washington without even being able to watch the ceremony on a JumboTron.

Back in the Silver line, we, too, waited.  At 11 am, a half-hour before the ceremony began, it was announced that the gates were being closed.  Moments later, our line began to move, not just a few feet or a few ranks at a time, but together, and fast.  We crossed Maryland Avenue, then Independence.  We walked past the gate labeled “Silver Gate.”  No police or other security officials manned the gate.  Nobody asked to see our tickets.  There were no metal detectors, no security apparatus of any description between us and the Mall.  We entered the Mall itself.  The temporary fencing that had been posted to separate the sections lay trampled on the ground, first stepped-over, then stepped-on.  I wound up a few ranks behind the Reflecting Pool, with a clear view of the inauguration stand and of a JumboTron screen.

At first, the Capitol Police, who were in charge of security for the event, claimed that everyone with a ticket had gotten in.  At 10 am Inauguration morning, an hour before the gates were due to close, the police chief said that lines were “flowing pretty good.”  The next day, they admitted that 4-5,000 people had been “discombobulated,” a word the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines as “upset” or “confused.”  Four days later, the Senate Sergeant at Arms, who oversees the Capitol Police, conceded “that the situation was more dangerous than it first appeared and that ‘We were fortunate that something worse didn’t happen, that there weren’t injuries.’”

Like a running back who zigs, zags and jukes to avoid tacklers but winds up no further down the field than where he started, the Capitol Police shifted from one excuse to another.  People had worn bulkier coats than expected—Hello; it was January 20; it had been so cold on January 20, 1984 that Reagan’s inauguration had to be moved indoors.  What did they think people would we wearing?—and, thus, had taken up more room.  They had been overwhelmed by the numbers who attended—although they had printed the tickets, so they knew exactly how many would be there.  In the end, the Washington Post reported that that more than 30,000 had not gotten in.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that given a date and time known in advance. given a crowd of a precisely-known size, and given a clearly defined space to be secured—given all that, a police force that is presumably one of the world’s best-prepared and most experienced, that thought they were promoting security and that their plans were working, created two major threats to security.  Several thousand people were directed into and confined in a tunnel, unable to move ahead or back.  Another crowd of a few thousand (including me) were permitted to enter a supposedly secure area with no ticket or security check, and to arrange itself where it pleased with a line of sight to the Capitol, 43rd and 44th presidents of the United States and Congressional leadership, to say nothing of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and the Rev Rick Warren.

Could our enemies have designed a situation more fraught with risk?  What other Maginot-Line* security plans are out there—devised and executed by the best and the brightest and festooned with the indicia of security like metal detectors and steel and concrete barriers–that when put to the test, will not work?  Will we learn the answers to these questions before we inaugurate the first woman president or the first Latino president—or the next flood, hurricane or terrorist attack?

So how was my Inauguration Day?  Pretty good.  I waited a long time in cold weather, but I got to witness history.

For the more than 30,000 who had tickets but didn’t get in?  Not so good.

And what does the day’s experience portend for our ability to manage security at such events?  We’ll see.


  1. Ivo Spalatin
    January 27th, 2009 | 9:53 am

    Well done. I couldn’t help but think of the tens of billions of dollars that we have wasted on the Missile Defense system – the Reagan dream that is really a nightmare.
    While we may be the best a crowd control, we are clearly still vulnerable and will always be so which is fundamentally why a Missile Defense system is a pipedream at best and a nightmare at worst.

  2. Meri-Jo
    January 27th, 2009 | 11:08 am

    I watched in the comfort of home but envied those of you that were there. But I cheered outloud and cried a bit.

  3. Jay
    January 28th, 2009 | 10:23 am


    We ALL became part of history, some of us viewed it closer than others. You are a hearty soul indeed.


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