A day to remember
One simply wanted to be present. Freezing cold or not, a crowd of 2 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 5 a.m. and already the platform was packed. A lot of black people in parkas and scarves and mittens. It was like "The Apollo Goes to the Arctic." There were Obama stocking caps, ski caps, skullcaps and pins with the first family on them, and everyone was beaming, and nobody complained about how cold it was or having to wait in line.
People were being marshaled into waiting areas for each train to Washington, each of us with a Commemorative Train Ticket with a picture of Himself on it—and the marshals, who wore yellow vests, were insistent on us Staying In Our Place, but I just boarded the first train that came through and nobody ever checked my ticket. Big rules, no enforcement.
I rode with a group of black women who had left Portsmouth, Va., at 1 a.m. to be sure to be there on time. They were heavily bundled and so excited they could hardly speak. And then when the conductor called out "Union Station, Washington," one of them looked at the others and she burst into tears. And they all cried. I would have, too, if they’d looked at me.
It was more than Democrats feeling their oats or 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 openhearted 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—whatever else he may accomplish, Obama has been a boon to the pin and T-shirt trade—and in our slow trek toward the Capitol, one felt the enormity of the day for the black people around us. I wouldn’t try to express, I simply was grateful to be among it. Old ladies with sore feet hauled themselves along.
The crowd down below the podium had their opinions. There was a profound silence when Laura Bush was announced and walked out. People watched the big screen and when Michelle Obama appeared, there was a roar, and when the Current Occupant and Dick Cheney came out of the Capitol, a low and heartfelt rumble of booing. Dignified 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 afterward.
But the great moment came later, as the mob flowed slowly across the grounds.
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 of the Marine helicopter, and people started to cheer in earnest. It was the most genuine, spontaneous, universal moment of the day. It was like watching the ice go out on the river.
Garrison Keillor is a radio host and author.
4 thoughts on “Through Keillor’s Eyes”
Wow – thanks for sharing that.
That was my reaction, too. Wow. I had to post this because I want to always have this essay. That last line tore something in my chest.
I could just picture the sense of one’s troubles literally flying away at that moment, and the shared joy that probably pulsed through the watching crowd, knowing that it was well and truly over. What great writing.
It really is incredible writing, I think. I’ve loved him for a long time but this one is firmly planted in my heart.
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