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Scenes from an Inauguration

Patient people, poetric address part of historic ceremony

AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez

On the morning of the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, I woke up next to Abraham Lincoln. Abe had wedged himself between the quilt and the pillows stacked neatly at the foot of the twin bed and, noticing me stirring just before dawn, glared at me with annoyed, half-opened eyes. Normally, that how-dare-you-wake-me look would have filled me with guilt, but not this morning. The symphony of howling sirens from police barricades, the distant rumble of National Guard deployments encircling the nation’s capital and the unmistakable sound of helicopters hovering overhead left me feeling restless and ecstatic.

Abraham Lincoln and his brother, Dwight Eisenhower, are, at least to my knowledge, the only cats that live full-time at the Washington Navy Yard, a massive fortress spanning several city blocks, where my hosts were gracious enough to let me stay the day before and after the inauguration. The only catch was that I had to share my bed with an obese tabby.

After waking before dawn, my friends and I mummified ourselves with scarves and long underwear and prepared for the frigid walk to Capitol Hill, where we would have prime seating at the base of the Capitol, right in front of the Ulysses S. Grant memorial. Every street within a five-mile radius had been shut down, including two major highways linking D.C. to Virginia. Squads of National Guard troops occupied every city block along the way, with one staff sergeant waving us through each intersection, making the walk easy, if not slightly unsettling. Here was a city under a de facto state of martial law.

It took six hours to wind through the security checkpoints and metal detectors. Still, hardly anyone seemed annoyed. I saw families excitedly recognize the Capitol dome and the National Archives, where, as one bespectacled old man put it, they keep the instruction manuals to the whole country.

Finally, the ceremonies started—no, they commenced, with all the pomp and circumstance befitting yet another peaceful transition of power. And yet, if in 50 years my grandchildren ask me to describe what it was like to see Barack Obama take the oath of office, I may well forget to mention the serene prelude of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello accompanying Itzhak Perlman’s violin, or Aretha Franklin’s heaving rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” or the Marine Corps Band, or the crowds of screaming and crying admirers. I might not even remember the content of Obama’s speech, though it was as fluent and restrained as I had hoped. But I will always remember his voice—pitched slightly higher than a baritone, scoured around the edges from years of sneaked cigarettes, eliding gracefully from word to word.

Friends of mine who work for Obama swear he wrote at least half of the inaugural address himself. If that’s true, he may well be the best presidential speechwriter since Theodore Sorenson—or even Abraham Lincoln, who penned the Gettysburg Address and his inaugural addresses before the job of White House speechwriter existed. Oratory at that level can be poetry, and Obama’s command of rhythm and cadence and tone—not to mention his command of the English language—lends a musical quality to his best speeches. And Obama’s inaugural address was no exception: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Try not to hear the music and the poetry in that.

That afternoon, my friends and I sought refuge in one of the newer bars in southeast D.C., where the bartender couldn’t uncork champagne fast enough. Jubilant music thundered from the sound system, rattling the glasses arranged atop the glowing glass bar.

When two of my friends left their seats to use the restroom, a thin black man dressed as Abraham Lincoln—beard, top hat, waistcoat and all—pulled up the seat next to me and began, “So, were you at the thing today?” Before I could answer, he continued, “Let me tell you, son—today was more than history. It was really something. Something I didn’t think I’d ever see. Something I might not see again. But I saw it. And it was great. And when my grandchildren ask me about it, I’m going to try real hard not to cry.”

I knew what he meant. I laid down a couple of bills for yet another toast and ended Inauguration Day just as I began it—restless, ecstatic, staring at yet another Abraham Lincoln.

Dan Keyserling (Col ’08) is the editor of The Crystal Ball, a Web publication of the UVA Center for Politics.