Local teacher and writer Kendall McCook went to Washington, D.C., for Barack Obama’s inauguration, with sons Jake and Clayton. The following is excerpted from his longer article about that experience.
On the dark, frozen morning of inauguration day, Clayton and I were to meet Jake and some friends at Farragut Park, before we walked with thousands of others down 19th Avenue to the Lincoln and Washington monuments, where millions would gather in celebration.
We wandered with the tide out of the Metro station to the park. Beneath Admiral Farragut’s statue, his words called out in bronze, “Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.” We bought inauguration buttons from two young entrepreneurs. I pinned on the blue and red Day-Glo face of Barack with the simple word “Victory” across the top. It had been eight years since I’d known any kind of victory in America. My America in vain ruin, my city circled and choked by gas wells and boomtown air pollution. Victory – a growing sense that, yes, indeed, we have overcome; the troops will come home from Iraq, and their families will somehow be restored. Soon, I thought, the future will be in the hands of someone who will help the poor, the disabled, the millions now under- and unemployed, the homeless and the ill-housed. Someone who will care about the poisons filling our air and sickening our people.
We were funneled between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument to a hilltop, where hundreds of thousands of people huddled together for a mile toward the Capitol, where, in two hours, the people’s president would take the oath of office – too far for the eye to see, close enough for the mind to imagine. From the video screens, I heard the voices of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen calling out all the verses of Woody Guthrie’s anthem of the poor. The words to “This Land is Your Land,” a song of hope from the Great Depression, were now words for Barack Obama, community organizer and friend to the desperate.
Down in the city, in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there whistling,
“This land was made for you and me.”
I located a good spot from which to watch the giant video screen. Scores of policeman and snipers on nearby buildings protected the government from the threats of an angry public – our government officials had grown accustomed to the hatred of the people. But things were changing, and there was no hatred here. The hour neared noon, and as the dignitaries drifted down to the grandstands, I saw the red, bloated face of Dick Cheney as he was being helped into a wheelchair. It had been eight long years for him, but it seemed even longer for the rest of us.
I stomped my cold feet, marching in place to the sound of wild-hat church lady Aretha singing “sweet land of liberty.” Southern Baptist preacher/evangelist/poser Rick Warren tried not to disgrace himself, but his hellfire vision seemed more disturbed than comforting.
Finally, there was an awkward but smiling swearing-in, and then the chant, “Obama,” echoed through the crowd. Cheers, tears … the long dark Bush night was finally over.
Obama stepped to the microphone and addressed a million hopeful faces . He called us to service and to freedom, speaking the word as if he understood its hard-won and difficult-to-maintain promise. Freedom from want. Freedom to attend college and freedom to learn a well-paid skill. Freedom to buy a business or start a school. Freedom to pursue “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” Obama exhorted and inspired us to turn from childish things. Then the realization was upon us, and the people cheered and laughed and cried. President Barack Obama had taken the reins.
Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale University poet, asked the question for the day, “What if love is the mightiest word?” Then came the soulful benediction from the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Dr. King’s best friend and fellow organizer, who marched down those long-ago Alabama and Mississippi freedom roads.
“God of our weary years,” he intoned. “God of our silent tears.” He savored “the joy of a new beginning, that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around … when yellow will be mellow … when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” Finally he asked that “all those who do justice and love mercy” say amen, and repeated the benediction. The people echoed the refrain. “Amen … amen.”
The crowd dispersed, and we wandered down the avenues into Georgetown, looking for a beer. But Georgetown seemed filled with disgruntled Republicans. An old cowboy in jeans certainly didn’t belong there. So my son and I left to look for the real people in D.C.
Outside a sandstone building, a chalkboard greeting welcomed Barack and Michelle inside. “That’s good enough for me,” I said, laughing, and we entered a cavern of cheerful beer-drinkers. At the crowded bar we ordered burgers. On the flat-screen TV, the presidential parade rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue. Barack and Michelle exited the bullet-proof Cadillac and strolled arm in arm to cheers of goodwill in our bar and bars all over the world.
We drove to Philadelphia that night in a line of thousands returning from the inauguration. We listened to Obama’s speech again on public radio. I rested my eyes and thought of the connections, the jazz beat voice of Kerouac, the respect for the arts and education that Obama’s Kansas mother and Kenyan father had passed down to him. The respect for Dr. King and Malcolm X and Paul Robeson and Maya Angelou. I thought of the Vietnam War and Mahatma Gandhi and the sense that justice can only be achieved peacefully.
Later on, we boarded a van for another short leg of the trip home. The driver, a black man in his 60s, working nights and worn from a troubled road, perked up at the white man with a cowboy hat and his son in Western boots, both wearing Obama buttons.
“You been to the inauguration?” he asked. We told him it had been a celebration of love and hope and peace. “I know it,” the driver said. He’d watched much of it on TV, and when his grandkids came home from school, “I busted out crying. … Thinkin’ already about better times.”
At our destination, we waved good-bye. “God bless us,” the van driver called. “Yes,” I called back. “You got it right. God bless us.”