A moment of utter integrity

Wed, Jan 21, 2009, 00:00

EYEWITNESS:The mood of the crowd was festive on Capitol Hill yesterday, a day of pride and triumph, writes Kathy Sheridanin Washington

UNDER A CRESCENT moon, hours before dawn, in sub-freezing temperatures, a tidal wave of humanity poured into the streets of Washington DC to reclaim the US capital for all of the people of America.

From 3.30am, wrapped in layers of clothing, toting folding chairs, picnics, rugs and the most vital accessory – carbon hand and foot warmers – they walked, skipped and sang their way to the National Mall, then bundled up in blankets and surrounded by architectural symbols of American history, they found a spot near the giant screens and settled down to wait.

The moment came at 11.30 precisely, when the determined face of Barack Obama, his head held high, appeared on the screens and triggered an emotional frenzy of flag-waving, chanting, foot-stomping and wracking sobs in a crowd of millions. Nearby a woman fell to her knees, choking on her tears, thanking God that this moment had not been snatched from them “by an assassin’s bullet”, an unspoken but real dread in recent days, particularly among civil rights veterans and visitors from the deep south.

“Thank you, God … Thank you, thank you, oh thank you for keeping him safe for this moment.” As the moving, joyful musical interludes, prayers and introductions took their course, a tension of a unique kind was building in the crowd, a crowd bent on nothing as trivial as entertainment or parades. This was an extraordinarily diverse assembly with a single purpose: to see and sense in their souls that moment when power would pass into the hands of a man regarded by many as a Messiah, “our Jesus, our Moses”, and, by the handful of “Deliverance”-style dissenters around the Mall, as “a peddler of vile liberal theology”.

As he took the oath of office, it felt like a sacred moment, one of utter integrity. “He used his middle name, Hussein – that bodes well,” said a (white) doctor as all around him, tears fell and the crowd bowed in solemn meditation, and prayed, and roared soulful alleluias in gospel musicality and raised their arms in ecstasy. “We heard freedom ring. Youheard freedom ring,” exclaimed a woman from Selma, Alabama, feverishly shucking off her two blankets.

Almost from the first sentence of his sombre, forthright inaugural speech, it was evident that they had taken on board the new president’s message of unity, when they applauded his tribute to George Bush’s “service to the nation”. It was a sentiment that had been echoed around the mall from dawn by people of every colour.

His resistance of the “I” word (used only three times) and clear intent to eschew populism for a “get on your bike”message about hard graft and sacrifice, left few openings for applause, but this audience was ready for it. They savoured it, not in wild bursts but carefully, reflectively. They applauded solemnly and fiercely when he talked about the challenges ahead and said: “They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America – they will be met”.

They clung to each other, tears streaming as he talked about “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness” and about “why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath”.

AND THEY WEPT anew when he addressed old values, such as sacrifice and the labour of the unsung working people, and the freshly-discovered notion that “greatness is never a given. It must be earned … It has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and ploughed the hard earth … But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

The mood was festive, but for the surprising number of families with young children it was a quiet lesson in civics, an event to which hundreds of photographs would bear witness to their presence, a time to retrieve the memory of those who had passed on, but now in a time of pride and triumph.

People who had endured 18-hour bus journeys through dark and ice, shared bunk beds over 100 miles away and walked miles from the drop-off point as early as 3am, offered food, footwarmers and positive words to this frozen journalist. They waved strangers ahead of them in the cafe queue. Boy scouts offered high fives, maps and flags. After a mass “O-ba-ma!” chant, Dr Cliff Andrew, a doctor at Johns Hopkins hospital, began the primal chant synonymous with the Bush “with us or against us” years: “U. S. A”. No one joined in. But he did it deliberately, he said. “I don’t want to send the wrong message… but we’re not going to let Bush take our flag. It’s ourcountry…” he said mildly.

Denise Roy, a 43-year-old African-American from Selma, Alabama, an iconic location of the civil rights movement, saw a close friend die in what she described as a “race-related” incident and sees this as “a new beginning”. She is no Pollyanna, however, identifying problems in her own black community that whites might hesitate to mention. She believes that progress at home has been stalled by a lack of that unity of purpose among black residents, who make up well over two-thirds of Selma’s population. The soaring hope and pride of these momentous days will be challenged by the stark reality of life back in Selma, a place still carrying the wounds of the past. “We’re too complacent about the little bit we have,” she said, talking of plans for an anti-violence campaign back home.

As the massive screens zoned in on George W Bush being escorted to a helicopter by President Obama and a shot of a shrunken Dick Cheney in a wheelchair (injured while packing boxes), there was the odd triumphalism roar, little more. Yesterday, America exhaled and began a new era.


The first presidential inauguration occurred in 1789 following the election of George Washington. The first held in Washington DC was in 1801 (Thomas Jefferson)

The only president to make an affirmation, rather than swearing an oath on a Bible, was Franklin Pierce (1853). His son had been killed the week before.

The inauguration has occurred on January 20th since 1937, as mandated by the 20th amendment to the constitution. Before that it was held on March 4th.

The reason for the long period between election and inauguration is that the new Congress must convene to appoint the president. If the electoral college is indecisive, Congress must choose the president. The House selected the president twice, in 1800 and 1824; the Senate chose the vice-president in 1836.

Inaugural addresses are not mandated by the constitution, but every president since George Washington has given one.

The longest address was by the president who served the shortest term. William Henry Harrison’s 1841 speech was more than 8,000 words, lasting three hours. He refused to wear a coat while delivering it and caught a cold, dying of pneumonia exactly a month later.

The shortest inaugural address was just 135 words – George Washington’s at the start of his second term in 1893.