Miracle on the Potomac

Inauguration Day in Washington, DC was cold. Not Vermont cold, but around 30 degrees, cold enough when standing in one place for several hours on end. The sun poured from a clear sky and warmed my face.

Adrienne and I were on the national mall Tuesday, proud to swell the ranks even if we represented just one-millionth of the crowd. We were nowhere near the presidential podium. The night before, a friend called with a chance at two tickets, for the bargain price of $60 dollars each. By the time I called back, they were gone. Good thing too, because the people who claimed them were among the four thousand ticket holders who didn’t get in – one last farewell screwup from the Bush administration.

As it was, we were 18 blocks west of the capitol, watching the whole thing on a Jumbotron screen. Yes, we could have been somewhere warm and watched it on tee vee. That was not the point. The point was to be there, to show up, an act of faith in America’s new day.

On Inauguration Day 2009, I arrived in the country I have always dreamed of. Far way as we were, we were still packed shoulder to hip with our fellow citizens. Every color of citizen was represented, although African-Americans made up half the crowd. Despite cold feet and knees stiff from standing, we laughed and danced, shared food and passed cameras around, taking photos of each other with the Washington Monument in the background. Our group included people from Maryland and Iowa, DC and New Orleans. We shouted out the names of the politicians and celebrities we recognized as they were seated on the platform, waved hello (with joy) to a new administration and goodbye (with relief) to an old one. We scratched our heads and traded puzzled looks when Chief Justice John Roberts muffed the oath of office, then shrugged and got over it. It is a season of forgiveness. (Just to be sure, Mr. Roberts administered the oath a second time at the White House Wednesday.)

On Sunday, we attended the concert at the Lincoln Memorial (back of the crowd again). It culminated with Pete Seeger leading several hundred thousand in singing “This Land is Your Land.” As the silverbacks in the crowd reminded our younger friends, Pete was banned from the US airwaves for 20 years in the middle of this century, because his politics didn’t conform to the McCarthyite slant of the day. Now here he was, 89 years old, singing Woody Guthrie’s anthem for the new president. And he sang the whole song – including three verses usually omitted. If you haven’t heard them, one verse speaks of people left behind by prosperity; another of those excluded by the power of wealth and property. The final verse reverses the two that precede it, symbolically returning the land to all the people. It felt just right.

The week before the inauguration, news was dominated by the story of the crippled USAirways flight that was successfully landed in the Hudson River by Chesley Sullenberger. After hitting a flock of geese moments after take off from LaGuardia Airport in New York, Captain Sullenberger lost power and had to make a series of life-or-death decisions – for himself and 150 others – in a matter of seconds. Each decision he made was the right one. Tragedy was averted and replaced by celebration.

That flight is an apt metaphor for what faces President Barack Obama. He’s the pilot now (I suppose George Bush and Dick Cheney were the geese) and he’s facing a series of life-and-death decisions – for himself and the rest of us – and he has the political equivalent of split seconds to make the right call. Like those passengers, we have more than a passive role to play in our own redemption. We stand on the wings of our nation, icy waters swirl around us. If we hang on together, taking particular care for our children and those who most need our assistance, we too can make it to safety.

It was a wonderful day Tuesday on the mall; the cheer that went up when Mr. Obama finished the oath will stay in my ears for a lifetime. We will not feel that good every day of the Obama administration, but that day was a glimpse of what we can achieve. It gives me strength for the work ahead.

© 2009, Mark Floegel

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