Tuesday, 20 January 2009

"President Obama": Few phrases sound so good

Getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning is not something I do for fun, nor is catching a bus at quarter to seven in the literally-freezing cold. The Metro was impressive; I got on at Takoma, and the thing was empty... or rather, it was when it pulled in. When it left, it was packed and no one else cold get on; the only reason I could move was because the people sitting down weren't letting others stand where they wanted their legroom. All good practice, really...

I got to the queue to see the parade at about 8, with my book. At this stage it wasn't that big, just a few tens of thousands of people; that spilled across blocks in three directions, because the fourth - down 7th, between E & D - was blocked off; only 5-10 thousand went down each time they opened the blockade, and then they had to get through security checks set up by the Secret Service (the police kept emphasising the phrase "Not our fault! Blame the guys in black suits!") which comprised of possession-searches without x-rays and 4 metal detectors.

Yes. 4.

Oh, and they tried to drive buses through this crowd - buses full of the navy security. Of course, there were closed streets they could have sent the guys down, and they weren't providing assistance to anyone at the security check points, but hey! They needed somewhere to send them, and through a huge crowd was perfect right? Very much wrong, actually... (those of you who read Mike Tomasky's blog on the Guardian website will note that it seems he was in the same queue as me)

So, I got there at about 8, and got to the checks just as Obama was sworn in, and heard on the huuuuuge loud speakers his speech which, contrary to what many have said, I thought was quite inspiring (the huge cheers it got, like the simple news of his being sworn in, might have helped....) whilst also being sensibly programmatic rather than high-flying and theoretical. So, then we waited, and waited, and waited, opposite the Archives of the USA (that's important, that location) for a parade that seemed never to come. Eventually, we were told why, not by any authoritative voice but by people hearing it on personal radios, or being told it over the phone, or being texted it: Teddy Kennedy had suffered a grand mal seizure. No surprise, that, honestly; it was freezing - or rather, below freezing (-6.67 degrees, apparently; not too bad for a brief period, but standing in it for 11-12 hours was not pleasant remotely. Next time, I buy longjohns first!) and Teddy has a brain tumor as well as just being old (oldest man in the Senate at the moment, I think).

So, then the parade. The huge ceremonial Presidential escort (rank upon rank of police and secret service, including the secret service vehicle contingent - 2 black SUVs) followed by the press corps, followed by more black SUVs and the car affectionately known to many in the crowd as "the Beast". It stopped in the place it traditionally does - outside the Archives (opposite me!) and I caught a brief glimpse of the President of the United States of America in the flesh before the (mostly black - unsurprisingly) crowd pressed forward, forcing me back from the barrier and totally blocking my sight. However, the guy was impressive, I'll give him that; looked a tad cold though. Then came Joe Biden, and (not Mrs) Dr Jill Biden. The reaction wasn't quite as huge, so I got some shots off of those two. Joe looked genuinely awed and happy, and Dr Jill cut a powerful figure in her own right - though the red coat, surrounded by black suits of secret service goons, might have helped a lot with that one.

Okay, now that the major figures of the parade have been covered, I'll save you float-by-float commentary on the rest of the parade; beyond the highlights, here's a brief summary. Lots of pretty good high school and university marching bands, many being chosen to highlight the progress of black Americans and historic things for black Americans (eg the first school built for black Americans). Many military units, all ready to parade in front of Obama and renew their oaths of loyalty (question: How many will have deserted, and over what; fighting on the orders of a Democratic president, or a black one?). Some very amusing floats, too, and something turned up from every state - with the marching bands especially, and their dancers, freezing (one costume was essentially a swimming costume with added frills; those girls must have been icy to the touch).

So, some highlights... the US troops in essentially redcoat uniform have to take one of the prizes for most wierd sight to see, given the history of redocats in the US and their well-known popularity amongst their contemporary Americans. A highly amusing sight, that was, though somewhat impressive too to see them all marching perfectly in step; units must have been trained and drilled specifically for the parade.

Lots of colours guards in the parade - each branch of the military had one, each ROTC and JROTC had one, and some of the school marching bands managed to drum up a colour guard of their own. The number of US flags was incredible.

The Peace Corps showing up gave me cause for thought - would Bush, in either inauguration, have invited them to parade? Internationalist pacifist agenda... doesn't sound like Mr Two-Wars Bush very much, and the fact that the peace corps support Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is noteworthy. Their section of the parade was one of the most beautiful, too - those flags of all nations (literally, I believe) were really a lovely image, and very bright too.

The various Native American sections of the parade were good, with both men and women in native dress; I've got some shots off of those but none of them are terribly good, especially the later ones as it got very dark by the end; the sun went down two-thirds or so of the way through the parade, and at that point decent photoraphy by the light of the street lamps alone was impossible. The lit Capitol was nice, though.

That the combined unions marched was one of two very political parts of the parade; each union was represented by one or two people holding a sign, and I think that's a positive sign that Obama is committed to strengthening those insanely weak trade unions that exist over here in the US.

The other overtly political parade section was the inclusion of the first openly LGBT organisation ever to appear in an inaugural parade, the Lesbian & Gay Marching Band. An excellent display, all told, and a positive sign for the Obama administration's position on LGBT issues.

There were some very amusing parts of the parade to - no photos, because it was too dark, but the Lawn Rangers (pronounced somewhere between Lone and Lawn by the announcer) all had decorated lawnmowers and were costumed wonderfully, and with their rakes did manage to do some flag dancing. That sort of thing isn't what one expects of a highly dignified event like this, but... it looked good, honestly.

And two more floats to talk about: The Illinois float, and the Delaware float. The former is above - the little green furry guy is a sports mascot, apparently called South Paw; the other guy is, of course, Lincoln (one of 4 on display this parade). A pretty good float, the Delaware one beat it by a long way, with it's simplicity and power: The preamble to the Constitution ("We the people...") although the tractor pulling it seemed a little out of place.

Now, after the parade had passed, I hopped onto the metro (well, I walked to find an open station, far too many were closed) and went back to Silver Spring where I'm staying. Cold, tired, and near collapse, bed beckoned irresistibly, so this blog post is coming a day late.

All in all, though, it was a wonderful event and the atmosphere was absolutely incredible; I'd do it all over again - though next time, could they change back to March inaugurations please?


  1. no, it's tradition to freeze on inauguration day

  2. Wow you really were there! something to bore people with in future years. I was thinking of you when I was watching in on the BBC online but sadly it went down during the speech though I got to see the swearing in.

    I thought he looked cold too.

    Have you warmed up yet?

    Is there a way I can set up an alert when you put up a new post.


  3. I truly envy you! What an experience and to be at one of the events of the 21st Century (I'll take the risk with that statement!). Glad you survived the cold! Beiong a shandy swilling southerner, I am not so sure I'd have done so!

  4. Great posting, thank you very much, got a feel for what it was like.

    Everyone here liked the speach, and I think out main comment has been how he just knocked down Bush in such a dignified and understated way.

    And, what no party?

  5. Showed your Blog to multi-cultural Y4 class who are doing a litaeracy topic on reporting. They got the feeling of how cold it was and what a monumental day. They liked the description of the parade and the freezing girls in bikini like costumes.

  6. Very interesting - a good photo of the Vice-President. Robert Byrd of West Virginia is the oldest (and longest-serving) senator, though.