Friday, January 16, 2009

The Presidential Inauguration: So Near, Yet So Far

In just over three days' time, Barack Obama, with his family beside him, will take the oath of office that will formally designate him the President of the United States. The Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court will administer the oath of office. As Obama recites the oath, his wife will hold, and Obama will place his left hand on, the bible that Abraham Lincoln is said to have used at his inauguration.

Although he has already taken residence in the city he will call home for at least the next four years, Obama will have arrived into Washington, D.C., again, just in time for the inauguration, on a train journey that echoes Abraham Lincoln's own journey into the city nearly a century and a half ago. And when Obama is sworn in, he will be the third President from the state of Illinois - the other two were Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, formerly Lincoln's general in the Civil War, both men instrumental to the prolonged effort to abolish slavery.

Whatever symbolism all these little tid-bits might hold for anybody, the one that takes my breath away is this one: on January 20, 2009*, Obama, the son of an immigrant African father and a white American mother, and the husband of a woman who is the descendant of slaves, will become the first African-American President of a country with a long and gruesome history of enslavement, on the steps of the United States Capitol, a building that took shape in the hands of slaves.

A video tracing the history of the construction of the Capitol

And it's not just the Capitol. The entire city was built from scratch on land bordering the Potomac river that alternated between marshy bogs, heavily wooded wilderness and farmland, with a few hilly patches thrown in. Pierre's L'Enfant's blueprints would not have been transformed into the neatly organized city with broad, tree-lined avenues, parks and grand buildings and monuments befitting the ideals of a new nation he envisioned if not for the toil of these slave laborers. (Click here for an amazing slide show, with narration, on how the city came to be built.)

So far, I have had the opportunity to attend three presidential inaugurations. I did not have to do much - just get in the car or on the metro, ride into the city and find a comfortable place. But I never had the inclination to. Washington in January is not the best of places to be loitering in for hours on end. Inauguration days are, by law it almost seems, bitingly cold and more likely than not, wet - it's either raining or snowing. Even if I wanted to brave the weather, I was just not that interested.

But the sight of Obama and his family on those steps, with the dome of the US Capitol in the background, will be one for the ages. His writings are already among the best for US Presidents and no matter how high the expectations, his speech is bound to be stupendous (it had better be). Oratorical or writing skills apart, something about being anointed President tends to cloak a person's words with wisdom and give it rhetorical flair (links to past inaugural speeches are here). Of course, about 10 million other people had the same idea as me.

Three months ago, before the Presidential elections, I put in a request with our senator's office for three tickets to the inauguration. I wanted to be there at the swearing-in (insanely, with my son at my side), to see either Hillary Clinton or Obama being sworn in. I promptly received an e-mail acknowledging my request and telling me that I would have to go on a waiting list. It's now three days to the inauguration and I still haven't heard from them. The swearing-in was the only event I really wanted to go to, so I guess we're not going.

But if you are one of the millions of people who are (you're in good company), the Washington Post's Inauguration Central is a great place to start. It has insider tips on D.C. etiquette (helpful if you're new to D.C.), a calendar of events, where to eat, what to bring (more importantly what not to bring), etc. The weather is going to be a bracing 30 degrees (F) by mid-afternoon under cloudy skies, according to the weather service, so whatever else you bring or don't bring, warm clothing and plenty of wrap-arounds are a must. A healthy dose of humor wouldn't hurt either.

Meanwhile, I'll be home, in front of the television, wrapped in a blanket, with perhaps a drink in hand, toasting Ms. Beyonce as she belts out At Last for the Obamas' inaugural dance.

P.S. If I'm ever at a live performance of this song, it'll make my entire year.

* Earlier version said 2008. Sheesh!


Kavi said...

I have Obama's picture on my mobile phone. With the words Hope. Progres on them. People who see the image, cant fathom, how this is there. And why a US politician's image must form part of my life.

I say, Obama is about possibilities. And of that he just seems to be presenting more of it. I have already collected some of his landmark speeches. And looking forward to this one too.

Its going to be a tumultous few years i think. And i am already looking forward to it...!!


Anonymous said...

Oh I do so hope you get to go! Fingers and toes crossed for you.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Kavi, I hope he lives up to your expectations man!

OJ, thanks. Will let you know if.

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