Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Third Day In DC: The Moment

Do you know what's really scary? Going to a place where you know there will be more than one million people and finding out that about half of them arrived 4 hours before you planned to.

That was the scene I awoke to on Tuesday morning. A 6am wake up call and a quick turn to CNN revealed that several hundred thousand people were already celebrating on the National Mall. Granted all of these people did not possess a coveted Inauguration ticket as I did, but their presence in such mass did put an uneasy feeling in my gut.

Would getting to the Capitol grounds be an even bigger ordeal than I anticipated? No time to ponder. We better get going.

On the back of all the official Inauguration tickets, specific instructions told you exactly where to go and advised you on how to get there. Yellow ticket holders were informed to take the Metro and exit at Union Station. The security gate would only be a few blocks away.

Upon exiting the hotel, you could immediately feel an intensified sense of excitement. People were moving in all directions. Military personnel were posted on just about every corner helping with road closures, crowd controls and instructions. And this was all happening at 6:30am.

Amazingly enough, getting on and off the Metro was a breeze. The ride got more and more crowded as we got closer and closer to Union Station, but it was never a mad rush of people getting on or off the train.

It was hard not to crack a smile as we made our way from Union Station through Columbus Circle. With one of the most anticipated moments of my life just hours away, walking there seemed surreal and exhilarating. It was really about to happen, and I was really going to be there.

However, that feeling of euphoria quickly took a back seat once I saw the longest line of people I had ever seen in my life. These people couldn't possibly be waiting to get into the yellow section, could they? A short walk towards the front of that line quickly affirmed my fears. Yes, they were ALL in line for the yellow section.

Now the quest becomes finding the end of that line. A quest that took much longer than any person could ever expect. Feet became yards and then hundreds, if not thousands. The line was so long that it stretched all the way back beyond the gate for the purple ticket holders.

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At this point, fear is really starting to build. Could all of these people really get through security in time for the ceremony? If this many people were already in line, how far away would we be from the podium? Would we even be able to see the actual swearing-in?

It was at this point, that I reminded myself that no matter my vantage point, I would still be a witness to history. Less than 48 hours ago, I was fully prepared to be anywhere on the National Mall, even if it meant being beyond eyesight of the ceremony. And I was excited about that possibility. So how could I now be so scared of not seeing anything with my own eyes, even if I did have a ticket?

Once I checked myself, I started to appreciate the entire experience for exactly what it was. An experience.

And you know what else happened shortly after my self-reminder? The line started to move! We crept at times and strolled at others. But either way, we were moving. Just as we learned throughout Barack Obama's campaign, progress moves at different speeds. But as long as you are moving, you are always making progress.

Once we finally arrived at the security gate, getting through the metal detectors was really fast. Not only was there a countless number of them, but people were actually ready and prepared to go through them with cameras and keys already in hand to place in the plastic bins. Too bad it never runs that smoothly at airports!

Now the goal was to find the perfect vantage point. I wanted to be able to see the swearing-in ceremony with my own eyes, but also be near one of the jumbotrons so I could see what everyone else was seeing on television. Luckily, we found that position within seconds of walking into our section. The only thing left to do was to wait for the ceremony to begin. A 2-hour wait!

We all knew the temperatures were expected to be below freezing, and everyone seemed prepared for it. From winter coats and scarfs to gloves and earmuffs, people were dressed for the season and the occasion.

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But no matter how bundled up you were, standing still in the same spot for hours gave you the most accurate measure of the cold. By far the worst part of the day was simply standing. Not so much because it was tiring, but rather because it was the coldest you felt all day.

With so much time to kill, it gave me the opportunity to fully soak in my surroundings. And you know what I noticed most? People.. Everywhere!

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Having covered so many sporting events in my career, I've been around large crowds countless times. But nothing matched the never-ending sea of humanity standing before me on the National Mall. Looking back towards the Washington Monument and not being able to see past the people was truly amazing. It was as if I was looking at every single person in America.

Knowing I would never have such an opportunity again in my lifetime, I smiled at America. And America smiled right back at me!

That feeling of pleasantness permeated the entire day. Even at USC and UCLA football games where upwards of 100,000 people are in attendance, there's always someone rooting for the other team. But not today. This was a completely pro-America crowd. Sure, some people may have been more excited to see President Bush leave office than President-elect Obama take office, but either way, they were elated about the future of America. And so was I.

Once the ceremony began with various musical selections and the arrivals of VIPs and dignitaries, you could feel the excitement start to build. One of the most anticipated moments in U.S. history was quickly approaching, and the people were at a fever pitch.

The first glimpse of the Obama's resulted in a loud roar from the masses. So loud you could feel it.

The shot of the new First Family of the United States reminded me of their appearance at Chicago's Grant Park following the election. It was a joy to see a black First Family. Not simply because of my African-American upbringing, but because it was even possible in a country built on the backs of slaves.

Shortly after the crowd got its first sight of President Bush, one section started to sing, in unison, "Nah, nah, nah, nah.. hey, hey, hey.. Goodbye!" More and more people joined the harmony, increasing the volume exponentially.

I wondered if the song could be heard on the Inauguration platform. If so, what in the world do you think President Bush was thinking? I actually hoped he didn't hear it. His presidency will be regarded by most as an embarrassment. I didn't think he needed any more humiliation.

After some opening remarks by Senator Diane Feinstein, the invocation by Dr. Rick Warren, and a rendition of "America Tis of Thee" by Aretha Franklin, it was time for Vice President-elect Joe Biden to be sworn in.

He seemed so proud of the moment. I was truly happy for him--mostly because his 91-year old mother was there to witness it. Having lost my father when I was 24, I often wish he were alive to see some of the things I have accomplished--none of which I could have done without him and his support. I'm sure Vice President Biden has similar feelings about his mother.

Next on the program was a performance of a John Williams arrangement by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill. I have never been a fan of classical music, but this song and its performance were truly beautiful. The moment and the venue definitely added to the appeal.

I did wonder, however, how they could play so well in such freezing temperatures. A musician's fingers are their most gifted instruments. Mine were numb, and I was wearing gloves.

(Editor's note: Later, of course, we all found out that the performance we heard was not the performance we saw. The song had been recorded a few days before and played back on tape. Unlike some, the lack of an authentic performance did not matter to me. The selection was perfect for the moment, whether it was live or not.)

Now, it was time for the moment. The moment so many had anticipated for so long. The moment so many others believed would never happen, at least not in their lifetime. President-elect Barack Obama was about to become President Barack H. Obama.

A loud cheer erupted as he rose from his seat and approached the podium with Michelle, Malia and Sasha. It was really happening.

But just as quickly as the cheer broke out, it dissipated. As excited as everyone was, we all wanted to hear the words as Obama became only the 44th person to take the oath of office as President of the United States.

The sight of him standing there in front of the U.S. Capitol with his left hand on Abraham Lincoln's bible and his right hand in the air was truly majestic.

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The only thing to take away from this moment was Chief Justice John Roberts' fumbling of the words. It was obvious Obama recognized his mistake and wanted to give him an opportunity to correct it. I felt sorry for them both. Every President wants his oath to go perfectly, and no Chief Justice wants to mess it up.

The good news was it did not prevent the inevitable. Obama had already become President three minutes prior to taking the oath of the office. The Constitution says the President starts his term at the strike of noon, whether he had taken the oath or not.

I had kept my emotions in check throughout the ceremony. While others cried around me, some uncontrollably, I never as much got misty-eyed. Not because I didn't fully understand or appreciate the magnitude of the moment, I just don't usually display my emotions in the form of tears, especially when I am happy. I am way more apt to shout than weep at such occasions.

When Obama completed the 35-word oath by saying, "So help me, God", my emotions came bursting out. I threw my arms in the air and shouted at the top of my lungs, "YES!!"

Our nation was positively living out the true meaning of its creed. The same creed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had recited on the steps of the nearby Lincoln Memorial some 46 years ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Raised at times by a single mother and having a mixed racial background, Barack Obama had still become the President of the United States. To most, such a feat seemed impossible. But today, we all learned that nothing is impossible in America. While, we all can't be president, we can all be the best we can be at whatever endeavor we choose.

We can all achieve greatness. We all can make a difference. We can all affect change.

And it took all of the above for this moment to take place. It took a nation to believe that its people could correct what was wrong. And this moment was the celebration of that triumph.

It had happened. It had really and truly happened.

And I was there to witness it.


ashley o'bryant said...

awesome, michael! what a beautiful recap.

Kelley Jackson said...

Thank you for sharing your experience Michael! You had me choked up!

Grace Camacho said...

Thank you for letting us experience this historical day through your eyes