At the Inauguration


by Norm Winick


It was a pilgrimage. It was a Hajj. For millions of Americans of all colors and creeds: African Americans; political junkies; Democrats, Republicans; curiosity seekers; tourists; news media; pacifists; labor leaders; historians; civil rights activists and countless others, the trip to Washington to see Barack Obama sworn in was a religious experience.

I had to go. I have watched the President’s meteoric rise from a State Senator introduced to a handful of local Democrats by then-Congressman Lane Evans. I was with him at Knox College the day after he won the Senate primary and was taking a victory lap around the state. I was in Boston when he gave his career-making keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.  I braved the frigid cold in Springfield when he announced for President almost two years ago. I was in Denver at Invesco Field when he accepted the nomination. I had to see this.

The hoteliers and airlines did everything they could to end the recession in their industry by charging whatever they thought the market would bear. I drove to Washington with my wife and grown son — both also political junkies.

In the days leading up to the big event, the anticipation was building.

The 240,000 tickets distributed by Congressmen and Senators were being handed out to the lucky few who won a lottery or had connections. Getting to the respective offices to pick up tickets involved waiting in long security lines but the representatives seemed genuinely pleased to see so many constituents at one time.

I met with Congressman Phil Hare for an extended time in his office as hundreds of other folks from Western Illinois stopped in to chat and Phil greeted them all.

I picked up the two tickets I had won in the lottery and they were prized blue ones.

The maps of the seating on the backs of the tickets specified areas by color, with about 80 percent of the ticketed people assigned to the silver regions, then there were closer purple and blue zones, then a somewhat closer orange one. Each zone had recommended Metro stops and a specified gate area.

I then waited in another line on the Senate side and picked up my press credential — which was a prized orange zone ticket.

I now had a ticket for myself, my wife and son. We were set.

I had told another couple from Galesburg who were going no matter what but had been shut out in the lottery that I’d see what I could do for them. I asked in a few Congressmen and Senators’ offices if they had any leftover tickets and was politely laughed out of most places. A very nice receptionist from a North Carolina Democratic Congressman  suggested I check with some Republican offices from states far away. I didn’t have to. In a Senate office building, I paused in a small crowd in the hallway just outside the open door to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s suite. A staffer wandered out and asked, “are you here to pick up tickets? I answered, I don’t have any.  She responded, “How many do you need? “One or two…” (Not wanting to be greedy). “Can you wait a second?” A minute later, she appeared with a manilla envelope containing two tickets. I thanked her profusely. She asked, “are you from California?” I shrugged, “no, but I’ve been to California.” She laughed. I walked on. That evening, I met up with my fellow Galesburger who was overjoyed to get a couple of tickets.

The mood all Monday was a combination of amazing optimism and thrilling anticipation. The crowds were large everywhere but incredibly friendly and polite. Bars and restaurants were packed with visitors enjoying each others’ company.

Security was creating obstacles at every turn — streets closed, stations closed, security lines in places that didn’t formerly have them, but everyone was good-natured and waited patiently.

Tuesday started out early but the crowd on the Metro coming in from the suburb we were staying in, Bethesda, Md., was orderly, manageable and didn’t seem any larger than a Chicago rush hour. Then it turned to chaos.

There is no way to describe a crowd that approaches 2 million people. It was five times the size of Woodstock in a much smaller space with no food, water, music, alcohol or drugs to ease the pain. There were barely enough port-potties for a crowd 1/10th that size. And, it was cold.

But despite the physical challenges to be overcome, the masses were incredibly good natured and drunk with anticipation. I went towards the orange entrance which was unmarked until a Capitol policeman directed me diagonally through the throngs waiting for the blue gate to a line he said was orange. With some others following, we slowly made our way across the blue mob over several fences, and into the orange line. It took hours, but I eventually got in to where if I would have brought binoculars I might have actually caught a glimpse of the President through the trees. To keep warm, the crowd in my section chanted, (from “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” whenever he appeared on the Jumbotron, to booing or singing “Na, Na Hey, Hey” whenever George W. Bush or Dick Cheney appeared). There were a lot of comedians in my section, comparing Cheney in his Wheelchair to old man Potter of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and making other cracks.

When the President was being sworn in and for his address, the crowd was silent. Many of the African-Americans I was sitting with, and there were many, shed tears. When it was over, we all shook hands and stood there staring at each other in amazement at what had actually happened.

The experience was a disaster for tens of thousands of folks behind me in line or holding purple, blue or silver tickets. Despite arriving as early as 3am, huge groups were left stranded when the gates were shut at 11:30am. One major purple entrance never even opened despite chants from the crowd of  “One, two three, four, we don’t want to wait no more, five, six, seven, eight, open up the purple gate.”

Thousands couldn’t see anything — not even a TV; they couldn’t hear anything but the cannons that marked the orderly change of command. The folks shut out included hundreds of Obama staffers, the Mayor of Seattle and my wife and son.

It was the consensus that the folks with no tickets, who just crowded on the National Mall, had the best of all. In some ways, that is most appropriate.