Inauguration 2009: Being there


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The Blue Gate line included hundreds of people waiting to get into the inauguration area on Jan. 20, 2009. The wait lasted roughly three hours. (Matt Sawatzki)

By Sara Sawatzki

When my plane touched down at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16, I could feel it. It was a low murmur at first that would grow exponentially over the next few days. You could hardly walk five feet without hearing one or both of the following words: Obama, inauguration. Through a series of amazing twists of fate, I had been able to obtain six of the coveted 240,000 “up-close” tickets that were given out, enough for my brothers, their significant others and me to attend. I had expected insane crowds, but nothing could have prepared me for the mass of crowd and energy that was to come.

I’ve been to D.C. at least a dozen times in the last 10 years. I was there when it was announced that Clinton had been impeached, and I was swept up in a sea of news crews catching the Democrats march out of the House chamber in protest. I was there for one of the nation’s largest peace rallies in the time shortly following Sept. 11, and I’ve been to just about every Smithsonian museum the District provides.

But a larger part of my time there has been spent roaming the streets from one destination to the next. So, in the days leading up to and including Inauguration Day, I noticed something was different. People were actually looking each other in the eye and smiling. Now, in Nebraska this is nothing out of the ordinary, but East Coast cities don’t practice such sentimental Midwestern gestures. But it was very prominent. If you were wearing a pin or a hat or any kind of Obama paraphernalia, you’d get a nod along with the smile; and, if you were lucky, you might even strike up a conversation.

Things went on like this … steadily growing. Vendors lined the streets, seeking their chance to capitalize on the Obama-mania, figuring, “If you sell it, they will come.” And people bought it. On the Sunday before the inauguration, the “We Are One” concert was held at the Lincoln Memorial. My siblings and I were able to find a spot in the first quarter of the space between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument on the Mall. The crowd was amazing. With an estimated half a million people in attendance, it was strange to realize that was double the number Martin Luther King Jr. had drawn for his iconic speech. And, despite the long lines and cramped space, everyone was smiling, laughing and having a good time. You quickly made fast friends with the strangers that surrounded you and, over the course of the concert, you’d wind up taking pictures with each other and hugging. And looking over it all was a lit-up Abraham Lincoln.

Walking across Memorial Bridge at dawn on Inauguration Day 2009. (Matt Sawatzki)On Inauguration Day, we decided to take the Metro from Alexandria, Va., (where my brother lives) to the heart of D.C. so that we could get in line to get into our ticketed area. We left the house around 5:30 a.m. and, much to our surprise, were able to find seats in the back of the first Metro car that came by. But as we grew closer to our destination, the time we spent waiting for the trains in front of us to move on grew longer. Extra time was taken to pack as many people as possible into a car and then offload them at their destination (I heard stories from strangers later that it took anywhere between one and a half to two hours just to get out of the Metro station). When the car stopped at Arlington Cemetery, we made an executive decision to abandon ship and walk the rest of the way.

So, at dawn, on a day that will surely live up to its hype in the grand scheme of history, my siblings and I marched from Arlington, Va., to the Capitol several miles away. We crossed Memorial Bridge, and even though the cold gusts of wind sweeping up from the frozen Potomac made it hard to keep your eyes open, the view was almost pristine: the lit-up Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and the Capitol itself far in the distance. A very real metaphor for where we’ve come from and where we are about to head.

The mass of people that grew increasingly larger as we got nearer to our gate checkpoint was far beyond what I imagined. Everyone was excited. It didn’t really matter what section you were in, just that you were there and a part of the crowd—although I still made a point to have a tight clutch on my “Golden Ticket.” As we maneuvered through the masses, I passed actress Catherine Keener, who, in the throngs of freezing people, almost became anonymous. We caught each other’s glimpse and smiled ... all were equal on this day—no such thing as celebrity special treatment.

When we finally found our line, it was clear that it was going to be chaotic for the next few hours, standing without an inch of space between you and anyone around you. Due to extremely poor organization, the ticketed lines had been left unsupervised, causing multiple lines to form that, ultimately, left those that had gotten there earliest out of luck when they finally closed the gate. Fortunately, and without our knowing, we had gotten into one of the other lines and were among the last few hundred to enter the area. On the other side of the standing area, my brother and sister-in-law, who had flown in from Seattle, were not so lucky.

We got in just in time to watch the procession of past presidents. By that time, I could no longer feel any part of my frozen body. I was able to snap a few photos, but my fingers ached from the cold, so I decided to observe in-the-moment instead.

The Bible used by Abraham Lincoln for his oath of office during his first inauguration in 1861, and for subsequent inaugurations, including Barack Obama’s on Jan. 20, 2009. This photo of the Bible was taken on Nov. 18, 2008. (Michael McNichol, Library of Congress)Biden was sworn in and, suddenly, Obama stood—close enough for me to see—and placed his hand on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln had used, and became the first president of African-American descent in our nation’s history.

My knowledge of science is minimal… I’m a word person by trade and by heart. But if there were a way to harness the energy of human emotion, that moment at our nation’s Capitol would have been enough to power the world for quite some time. It was Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp sounding over the rooftops of the world … Allen Ginsburg’s Howl for a better America.

I took comfort knowing that some­where in the distance behind me, behind the sea of excited people gathered for a common purpose, behind the silence of a nation hanging on our new presi­dent’s every word, good old Honest Abe sat on his mighty, chiseled perch and peered out—past where his words stating that “all men are created equal” are etched in stone, past the step where Martin Luther King Jr. told the world of his dream, out over the crowd and all the way to the rotunda of the Capitol where that dream was now fully realized. And Abe sits, that Mona Lisa smirk on his marbled mouth, as if to say he always knew it could happen.



Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Excellent article! And very well told...I almost felt like I was there. The final sentence was superb!

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