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Postcard from Washington: In the belly of the beast

This Magazine Staff

[Editor’s Note: From time to time we feature guest bloggers on the site. Eva Salinas, who edits news columns for the magazine, was in Washington D.C. for the Obama inauguration last week, and sends this dispatch about her experience. To propose guest blogs, email editor at thismagazine dot ca.]
And what a beautiful beast it was.
Last week, by some wonderful twist of fate, I found myself in Washington, inside a throng of more than 1 million well wishers.
It was early Tuesday morning and there I was, leaning in closely to the bodies in front of me, trying to keep warm while icy air whipped our hair and lashed our faces. The speakers boomed around us, marking the start to the inauguration of the U.S.’s 44th President.
Millions of people in the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of Barack Obama
But before excitement, joy, and hope, the first thing I felt was the cold. I thought I had left Canada, but this felt much more bone chilling than any Toronto morning. I imagined it was like doing the polar bear dip, only we were swimming in a sea of people, surrounded by brilliant smiles on patient faces.

I closed my eyes, wincing at the wind and thought about the past twelve hours. Only hours earlier we were driving in darkness from Toronto to D.C., a spontaneous trip that began Monday evening. Our car, a small, dark blue thing — dirty as hell with sleet and snow — hummed down the highway under starry skies in New York State, Orion’s Belt leading the way. We snaked through the Poconos mountains in Pennsylvania, and zoomed along eerily quiet roads in Maryland, past empty gas stations, sleepy houses, and the neon lights of 24-hour Uni-Marts and Kwik Fills. All the while, Barack Obama’s articulate, familiar voice hushed us into a reflective state, as we listened to the audio books of his “Dreams from my father.”
Looking up at the darkness above, images from his life played out in our heads: his grandparents struggling in a racist Texas; their white daughter’s choice of a Kenyan husband; Obama as a boy, influenced by stories of his father (the legend; the man of stubbornness and principal); outdoor boxing lessons in Indonesia; his mother’s loneliness there and, later, Obama’s indifference to academia as a young man; his rebellion… The trials of his younger years unfolded in our minds, as red and white lights flashed on the highway in front of us.
Hours and miles and too many cups of coffee behind us, we arrived in Washington, just past 7 a.m. A caller into one of the local radio stations said it already felt “like lunch time” in the downtown core, and we braced ourselves for a traffic jam ahead. But luck was on our side and, despite reports of bridges and streets being closed, we made it into the heart of the city, driving past the dozens of military personnel on guard (more security in the city than U.S. troops in Afghanistan), and the revellers already out in the streets.
By 9 a.m., our car parked underground, we were on our feet, walking with them, toward the Mall.
We entered the grounds, the sun shining through the trees and on the frozen pond. Choral music streamed into the air in surround sound, I had no idea from where it was being projected. It felt like as though a strong magnetic pull was drawing us into the area (“like the mother ship,” my friend observed): people emerged out of every building and from every street, pouring into the park, walking over paths and grass and tree roots and stones, forging their own route to the epicentre.
We reached Washington Monument around 10 a.m., where we hit a wall of people. This was still a good half mile back from where the action would take place on Capitol Hill, we couldn’t see where exactly, only the sea of people in front of us, and the growing sea behind us. Giant screens dotted the crowd every couple of hundred metres.
It was incredibly cold out, even for us Canucks. I know it was said the temperature was just below zero, and compared to the -14° C weather we left at home, that’s nothing to complain about. But there was something about the chill there that seeped into your bones, a dry cold that made you try to shake it off, but to no avail. Just trust me, it was damn cold. Some friends who descended upon the Mall at 2 a.m. to get a prime spot (“the front of the nose bleeds”) would later tell me that they were surrounded by “cuddle puddles” all night long — crowds forced out of necessity to huddle to together, an experience oscillating between something sexual and platonic love for one another, despite being strangers. God forbid you had to go to the washroom.
Around 11 a.m., the screens came alive with announcements and images of sleek convoys rolling in, men in suits and women in long, presidential cloaks arriving. We waited with bated, cold breath.
Just before Noon, after special guests had been welcomed and seated, including a boo’ed Bush and a cheered Clinton, controversial Evangelical pastor Rick Warren took the stage. I can’t remember what he looked like; my face had long been tucked into the neck of my sweater for warmth. But I could hear booing around me, and “just wait to hear what he has to say” comments behind me.
And I was surprised by his speech.
I was prepared for the predictable — many mentions of God, avoidance of controversial topics, such as his views on homosexuality and Iran. I had regretted earlier, as we walked toward the Mall, not having brought a rainbow flag or something to quietly protest his views, while respecting the ceremony (as was recommended by Dan Savage last week).
Warren’s views are impossible to ignore, however taking his prayer at face value, I echoed his sentiments. God or no god, everyone present bestowed love on Obama and his family, on Biden and his family, and hoped for strength and courage and guidance in light of the challenges they will face. This is true prayer at its best, when non-believers and believers alike can close their eyes and share in the feeling of good will toward others. I won’t go so far as to say I came out respecting Warren that morning, far from it, but I had respect for his words, their meaning, and, more likely, his speech writer.
Washington Monument
The swearing in ceremonies went as expected, more or less: a cheering crowd, a stirring piece of music or two, a thousand smiling moments in succession that made your cheeks ache. Obama spoke, to me, of building up, not breaking down, of accepting a diverse country of believers and non-believers, of the importance of the environment, of science, of meeting challenges, of a new day.
And, before we knew it, it was all over, we were herding out of there, slowly but surely, streaming back into the Obama-mania streets filled with hawkers selling Obama air fresheners, Obama hand puppets and Obama earrings.
The next 24-hours remain a blur: walking around a new city, limos and taxis and bicycles flying past people dressed to the nines, the presidential parade, the zealous, spontaneous conversations with strangers while in line for coffee, in the hotel restroom, or at the pub. The jubilation.
And, the next day — after a night of celebrating among locals, foreigners, actors, musicians, actors-cum-rappers, filmmakers in top hats and all lovers of 5 a.m. pita sandwiches — we set off for home.
Today, one week since his inauguration, Barack Obama is the U.S.’s 44th President.
Immediately, there are many signs his presidency will be reassuringly, incredibly different. And not just because he gets to keep his BlackBerry. The announcement to close Guantanamo, to lift the ban on abortion funds, and to move toward tougher auto emission standards are just a few of many early, positive signs this President is not afraid of change.
Will that mean justice for Omar Khadr, equality for the gay community or peace for Afghan children? I’m not sure. But if the butterflies in my stomach during the drive back North last week were any indication, there is hope.
Eva Salinas is This Magazine’s news columns editor. She also provided the photos.

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