Bush is airlifted out to gasp of pleasure as a new America emerges

Thu, Jan 22, 2009, 00:00

ONE SIMPLY wanted to be present. Freezing cold or not, a crowd of two million, whatever – solemn warnings about tight security, long lines, traffic jams, cell phones not working. In the end, one wanted to be there on the Mall before the Capitol on Tuesday at noon amid the jubilant throng and see the man take the oath of office – our first genuine author-president.

So I hitchhiked a ride in the middle of the night on a jet heading to Baltimore and got to the train station at 5am and already the platform was packed. A lot of black people in parkas and scarves and mittens. All were beaming and nobody complained about how cold it was or having to wait in line.

I rode with a group of black women who had left Portsmouth, Virginia, at 1am to be sure to be there on time. They were so excited they could hardly speak. The same was true of the line to go through security to get on to the Capitol grounds. The line was six blocks long, the longest line I have ever stood in, but there is nothing so pleasant as being in a crowd of happy people when you are happy about the same thing.

Up above, cops with automatic rifles on parapets and walkways and down below, the mob milled along Louisiana Avenue and the line inched forward and the goodwill radiated up from the crowd just like in Grant Park on election night.

It was more than African- Americans celebrating the unimaginable, more than revulsion at the gang of bullheads who held power for too long. It was a huge gasp of pleasure at a new America emerging, a country we all tried to believe in, a nation that is curious and venturesome, more open-hearted and public-spirited.

All kinds of people, the slim and sleek, the XXXLs, the heavily insulated, the carefree, we moved through ranks of souvenir sellers and, in our slow trek towards the Capitol, one felt the enormity of the day for the black people around us. I was grateful to be there. Old ladies with sore feet hauled themselves along.

The crowd down below the podium had their opinions. There was a profound silence when Mrs Bush was announced and walked out. People watched the big screen and when Mrs Obama appeared, there was a roar and, when the Current Occupant and Mr Cheney came out of the Capitol, a low and heartfelt rumble of booing.

The band tootled on and there were shouts of “O-ba-ma” and also “Yes we can” (and also “Down in front”) and then he came out and the place went up. That was the first big moment.

The second was when he took the oath and said: “So help me, God” and the cannons boomed and you got a big lump in your throat. And the third was afterwards.

The invocation was extensive and segued into the Lord’s Prayer and the music was okay if you like Aaron Copland and the inaugural speech was good enough, calling on us all to great deeds and sacrifice, details to be announced later.

But the great moment came later, as the mob flowed slowly across the grounds. I heard loud cheers behind me and there on the giant screen was the Former Occupant and Mrs Bush saying goodbye to the Obamas in the parking lot behind the Capitol, the marine helicopter behind them.

The crowd stopped and stared, a little stunned at the reality of it.

They saw it on a screen in front of the Capitol and it was actually happening on the other side. The Bushes went up the stairs, turned, waved and disappeared into the cabin, and people started to cheer in earnest.

When the blades started turning, the cheering got louder and, when the chopper lifted up above the Capitol and we saw it in the sky heading for the airport, a million jubilant people waved and hollered for all they were worth.

It was the most genuine, spontaneous, universal moment of the day. It was like watching the ice go out on the river. – (Tribune media services)