Saturday, January 24, 2009

Inaugurating a President

The Event: January 20 marked the culmination of an incredible two years in American political history. From his declaration as a candidate in February 2007 to his nomination and election in 2008 to his inauguration on Tuesday, Barack Obama has astonished the world. In a vicarious way, we have accompanied him on this journey. We started our trip with a fundraiser in our apartment two years ago, a trip that culminated with the swearing-in ceremony this week at the Capitol. Starting as one of the most improbable candidates, Barack Obama has become the nation’s first African-American president.

swearing in
Taking the oath

We just spent four days in Washington. We experienced high points and low points, and I mean some that were really high and others that were really low. But the unquestioned zenith occurred noon Tuesday when Obama took the oath of office. To witness it in person was a thrill that far overcame the inconveniences and discomforts of the crowds, the lines, and the bitter cold.
 Recieving his first salutes from the troops
President Obama leads the parade

crowd from podium
A few others joined us to witnesses history

The Speech: Is there anyone who has not yet weighed in on “the speech”? Unquestionably, it had substance, including a litany of the domestic and international challenges that we face. But did it soar, did it meet the high expectations that we all had for what many thought might become “the speech of all time”? Clearly, not. The bar had been set too high, particularly by Obama himself. His earlier speeches, and particularly his coming-out speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, engendered the hope for a ringing address, one for the ages. But as it turned out, there was no particular part of the speech, not even a phrase, that will live in history. Nothing he said will equal, or even come close to, the emotional impact of the opening line of his Iowa caucus victory speech: “They said this day would never come.” That, my friends, is a line for history.

Overall, it was a fine speech, an appropriate one, and one that received mostly accolades from across the political spectrum. Yet there were critics, even among his supporters. Paul Krugman, one of his most enthusiastic champions, weighed in with what could be called at best
 faint praise: “…there wasn’t anything glaringly wrong…”

Adlai Stevenson: Most analyses of Obama’s speeches have focused on comparisons with presidential predecessors, particularly Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. But the speaker with whom I think he is closest, both in style and substance, is Adlai Stevenson. In 1952, I was a 19-year-old, too young to vote under the then law, but nonetheless a campaigner for Adlai Stevenson in his losing battle against Dwight Eisenhower. Re-reading some of Stevenson’s speeches today, they still evoke thrills, even a half-century later. His 1952 Democratic nominee acceptance speech, “…Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions…” evoked the language and message of Obama’s inaugural address.

By the way, before he was a presidential candidate, Stevenson served as Illinois governor (at a time before they routinely served in prison). His wit and quickness are illustrated in an appearance he made on a television quiz program. He was asked to give a ten-letter answer to the question, “What is a synonym for security”? After a short pause, he responded, “For a man, employment; for a woman, engagement.” Yes, I know, politically incorrect, but this was almost 60 years ago, and damn, it was
 quitean answer.

A small quibble with Obama’s speech. The third paragraph in the speech begins “Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath…” In actuality, Obama is the forty-third American to have taken the oath. Because Grover Cleveland servednonconsecutive terms, he is usually double counted when compiling the number of presidents in our history.

Depression-era song, Obama-era suggestion: As a fan of film and theater, I was amused by the following advice he offered (without attribution) in his speech to those suffering in this economic crisis:

“Starting today,
we must pick ourselves up,
dust ourselves off,
and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Some of us old-timers recognize that these words were appropriated from the song
Pick Yourself Up, written by Dorothy Fields (lyrics) and Jerome Kern (music), and sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the 1936 film, Swing Time. The lyrics of the song offered a lift for those suffering in the depths of the Depression. An excerpt:

“Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again

Watching the inauguration – Plan B: We never made it to the Capitol grounds. Because of a sticky situation (see Purple Gate hell below), we were unable to get to our reserved viewing area, even though we had tickets. So we went to our fallback position, an office building located conveniently close to the ceremony. From a high window perch and from the roof – move over, Secret Service – we were able to witness the proceedings. What’s more, we enjoyed the additional conveniences of food, drink, and bathrooms. In life, Plan B sometimes triumphs over Plan A.

Terrific dinner party: A highlight of our Washington stay. On the night before the inauguration, we attended one of the ten charity dinners in private homes that featured a celebrity chef. I don’t know about the other dinners, but ours had all the elements of a top Washington soirée. The guest list came from central casting, and included a newly minted cabinet secretary, a top member of the new economic team, several best-selling authors and Pulitzer Prize winners, a sprinkling of business execs, an assortment of NGO type, a few not-for-profit doyennes, and at least one unemployed blogger. The tony Georgetown venue was, of course, perfect.

Our host gave us the rules of the evening: “All conversation is off the record. All, that is, unless it’s really juicy.”

And then there was the dinner itself. Well, the food that was served by our celebrity chef turned out to be an acquired taste, and I haven’t yet acquired the taste. Included among the five courses were pig snout, lamb’s neck, and an egg cooked for one hour forty-five minutes at very low temperature (115°). The chef explained the rationale for this unusually long and low-temperature method. But after eating the egg, I could not for the life of me figure out why this protracted technique beats boiling one for three minutes. But then what do I know about
 Slow Food?

West Side Story: Another high point of the trip. We caught the penultimate Washington performance of a new production that’s headed for Broadway in a month. This classic 1957 musical offers the great Bernstein-Sondheim music and lyrics, the remarkably faithful re-creation of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, and Arthur Laurents’ book and direction. But a new twist was added to this production that was designed to enhance the verisimilitude. The Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang) sing and converse in Spanish. Even for those of us who for some reason took French in high school, it works.

The (ugh) Inauguration Balls: Inaugurations are famous for the black-tie balls. They’re plentiful, they’re big, and they’re forgettable, not necessarily in that order. We had tickets to the Eastern Ball, one of the seven “official” geographical balls; there were a host of others. Ours was located in Union Station and was one of the smaller balls -- only 3,000 attendees. The Mid-Atlantic ball at the dreaded Convention Center had 8,700 attendees. Trés intime, n’est-ce pas?

Because of security, cars could not drop off guests at the front door of Union Station. So we took a several-block walk in the frigid weather. Arriving frozen, we entered the massive space, assaulted by the amplified music that was deafening in what was, in effect, a giant echo chamber. After all, a train station is not exactly a concert hall.

We headed for the nearest bar. The bartender: “You need drink tickets.” Me: “You
must be kidding.” He wasn’t kidding. After contributing and raising a lot of dollars for the campaign, after giving money to the transition committee, after buying VIP tickets for the ball, and after getting dressed up in black tie and arriving frozen, we were greeted (if that is the term) with a cash bar. Very classy.

Aha! We discovered we were not in the VIP area. Surely that would be different. Reaching the VIP area, such as it was, same greeting: no ticket, no drink. The buffet table, however, was ticket-free. It was also taste-free. We bolted.

So here’s the bottom line on inaugural balls. There is
 no reason – none – for ever going to one. Noisy, crowded, impersonal, lousy food, endless coat-check lines, lots of standing around waiting for the First Couple to arrive. Sound good? Don’t be tempted.

Howard Dean Reception: Another low point. On Saturday evening, fresh from the glorious West Side Story performance, we attended a reception at the National Museum of American History honoring the outgoing DNC chairman, Howard Dean. If you can conceive of a downscale version of an inaugural ball, this was it. I assume that Howard Dean eventually made it there. We were long gone.

But before leaving, we did get to see fragments of the original
 Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the National Anthem. It inspired us, and is well worth seeing.

Purple Gate hell: A low point of our trip. Donna and I had received purple tickets to witness the inauguration ceremony.
Purple ticket

Now understand, these were not tickets for seats; these were just entrée into the standing area on the Capitol grounds designated on the
 inaugural map as purple, immediately behind the seated guests. Nonetheless, we were happy to get them, and looked forward to watching the ceremony from ground level. It was not to be.

As has been reported since in newspapers and a lot of angry blogs, tens of thousands of ticketed attendees were unable to get through the Purple Gate (or the Blue Gate on the other side of the viewing area, which had the same problem). It was a massive management failure. Too many tickets were issued, gates opened too late, too few screening magnetometers were in place, there were too few police or security people, and fewer still who had a clue as to where we should go.

Many of the people waiting to enter had been in line outside or in a nearby tunnel for hours in sub-freezing cold with zero information. And the lines didn’t move. They were getting angrier and angrier as inauguration time approached.

It was not a pretty sight, as documented by the photos below from a Facebook group, “Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom.” Note in particular the comments of frustration and anger below the photos. Hundreds of photos were posted.

By the way, the D.C. chief of police stated after the inauguration that everyone who wanted to get into the viewing area was able to do so.

Not true.

purple 2
purple 1
purple 4
purple 6

The purple gate happened to be within yards of the entrance to our Plan B office building. We gave up on trying to get through the gate. We just wanted to go the thirty yards to the building. We started with polite “excuse me” requests. These soon escalated to strong imprecations, not suitable for a family blog. Thirty minutes to go thirty yards. Anyway, we finally got to the building and didn’t venture out until long after the crowds dispersed.

The poem: Elizabeth Alexander delivered an original poem, Praise Song for the Day, at the inauguration ceremony. Hearing it, and later reading it, the poem reminded me of why so few of us pay much attention to contemporary poetry. I felt very little emotional impact or intellectual stimulation. It was a modest message with little rhythm and, of course, no rhyme. (I believe you get drummed out of the poets union if your poems rhyme.) To me, it sounded and read and looked more like a modest few paragraphs of prose (with a lot to be modest about).

In grammar school, we read (okay, we were forced to read) and recited poetry; I even remember some of those poems to this day. My guess is that little poetry is read or recited in schools today. I also suspect that Ms. Alexander’s inauguration poem will do little to reverse that trend.

To get a flavor for it, here are the last seven lines of Elizabeth Alexander’s
 Praise Song for the Day:

“…Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.”

Let’s compare this with a poem written for an earlier president. I dug up the 77-line poem,
 Dedication, that Robert Frost wrote for John Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. (Frost, when he got to the podium, was unable to read it because the sun reflected too brightly on his paper; instead, he delivered a different poem from memory. Try that one, Mr. Chief Justice.) The last eight lines of Dedication are:

“ …It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.”

Perhaps a new golden age’s beginning hour began noonday January 20.

Lilly Ledbetter: During the course of our four days, we couldn’t help but run into alot of bold-face names. They were everywhere. To their credit, they all respected my privacy; none asked for an autograph.
Lilly Ledbetter

But one who impressed us greatly was not a famous actor, or TV personality, or politician. She was a former Goodyear factory worker, Lilly Ledbetter, who is now on the cusp of bold-facedness (is this a word?). At a luncheon we attended on Sunday, orgnized by our friend Sunny Goldberg and her Mamas for Obama group, we met this Ms. Ledbetter. She had led an unsuccessful equal-pay fight for many years that finally ended up in the Supreme Court. The adverse ruling was based not on the merits, but rather on the court’s denying her right to sue on what was, in effect, a technicality. That will change. In the next few days, one of the first acts that President Obama will sign into law is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

The bottom line? Was our excellent adventure in Washington worth the inflated hotel prices, the frozen toes, the numb fingers, the endless lines, the intrusive security, the ridiculous balls. The answer is, absolutely yes. We relate to the ubiquitous person-in-the-street interviews we saw and conducted during our stay. When asked, why are you here, every answer was the same: “This is history.” Indeed it was. For them, for us, and for the nation. We were there.

Our favorite wrap-up: The following advertisement from Hammerstein Light and Power (no kidding) appeared in a half-page display ad in the Jan. 21 New York Times. Its message, drawn from the musical theater, is succinct and perfect.

Beatiful mornin'

Would we ever do it again? Absolutely not. There will be more inaugurations, but there will never be another moment like this in our lifetime. So here’s our plan: On January 20, 2013, we’ll be sitting in front of our widescreen TV with drink in hand in our warm apartment and we’ll toast the president – from 200 miles away. As to doing it again, we share the sentiment of the woman who gives this view of love in Stephen Sondheim’s cabaret song, I Never Do Anything Twice.

“…Once, yes, once for a lark
Twice, though, loses the spark
One must never deny it
But after you try it you vary the diet…

Once, yes, once can be nice
Love requires some spice
If you’ve something in the view
Or something to do, totally new
I’ll be there in a trice
But I never do anything twice…”

ay before
The day before

line 2
Lines everywhere

ice walk
Celebrating on the Reflecting Pool ice after the ceremony

Taken on Jan. 19. The lines were longer on Jan. 20.

A Georgetown shop window


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