Instead of Aretha and Yo-Yo Ma, we listened to James Taylor and Beyonce—the weather chilly but bearable. And instead of an idealistic president heading into a disrespectful, uncooperative Congress, we heard our progressive values proclaimed by a tested but undeterred and determined president, ready to lead.
Standing in line before the free-for-all of security, everyone had a story to tell. The young woman from rural Ohio who ran the phone banks and caucuses for her neighborhood who was rewarded with a hug from the president when he visited her small part of the world. The Georgetown student from New York who writes a political blog aptly named partyhardpolitics.com. The elderly black man, leaning on a cane, who was the first in line, having spent the entire frigid night waiting at the gate.
Walking up the steps of the capitol in the pre-dawn chill toward the empty platform where hours later the president would address the nation, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the promise and hope of our democracy, surrounded by darkness before the brightly lit dome topped by the Statue of Freedom, facing east to catch the first warming rays.
It was a less giddy crowd than four years ago, but that in itself is progress. The “Can you believe America elected a black man as president?” question is gone, forever. In our section, 90 percent of the people were African-American and a deeply felt sense of pride swept over them every time the president, first lady or their children appeared on the Jumbotron.
When comedian Steve Harvey strolled through the crowd, elegant in a long coat accompanied by his wife wearing full-length fur and sky-high Louboutins incongruous with the heavy winter coats and shoes of those who walked miles to their seats on the capitol steps, people gasped and whipped out their phones to capture a glimpse. Some of us middle-age white people, reduced to asking our neighbors who on earth Steve Harvey was, were met with kind but incredulous smiles.
The CNN cameras and their sweeping views missed the subtleties and the countless small moments of an historic day. But then only a Nevada Democrat would smile watching Peggy Lear Bowen boss around the capitol police who were blocking her shot of the podium.
A surprisingly strong cheer came from the crowd when Sen. John Kerry emerged on the stage, with even stronger reactions for President and Secretary Clinton. But the spontaneous outburst when Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was announced to swear in the vice president ushered in a strong sense of satisfaction. It was a moment of pride, of justice; an acknowledgment that finally the promise of equality for all was reflected in Dr. King’s legacy in the flesh before us.
The inaugural address showcased the progressive issues of our time perfectly. A row of young men behind us, wearing LGBT for Obama buttons, cried when the President spoke of marriage equality. There was a softly mumbled response from the choir of supporters as the President said Medicare and Social Security “do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take risks that make this country great.”
Waves of applause rippled forward from the Washington monument at times, energizing those of us huddled just below the podium where the president gazed at the hundreds of thousands of Americans and reminded Congress that “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-old debates about the role of government for all time—but it does require us to act in our time.”
The call to action over climate change and income inequality was especially appreciated, recognizing the dual threats of pending environmental disaster and a country where “a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it,” but the most poignant moment of the day was left to a Cuban-American gay poet, Richard Blanco, who recited a profound homage to these difficult times.