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Notes from the National Mall

January 21, 2009

First off, let’s just get this straight. I am tired, and still a little cold. I woke up in my warm bed at 4:30 on Tuesday morning, and walked down to the mall from my home north of Dupont Circle to arrive at my place on the mall at 6:10 am – only 4 hours until the musical prelude began! So yes, cold and tired, but glad that I went to witness history.

The inauguration felt more serious and solemn than I thought it would, especially compared with the ebullience and enthusiasm of the election. On election night people were dancing in the streets. Yesterday people were huddled in crowded masses trying to get down those streets to reach the metro. There was happiness, but a more guarded sort than on that comparatively balmy night in November.

I think a few factors contributed to this. As I alluded to above, the cold, the crowds, and the state of the economy all put a damper on the unimpeded joy of November. There was hope, but, at least for me, hope tempered with the knowledge that this man who became president yesterday is human, capable of flubbing his oath of office, and capable of making mistakes and disappointing us. In fact, I find the cult of personality springing up around President Obama to be slightly upsetting. The people of the United States (and the world) need to take a collective step back and begin constructively scrutinizing their president.

There was also the presence of former president George W. Bush, who was left out of the celebrations in November. As President Obama was delivering his speech you could spy Bush over his shoulder, a reminder amid the excitement of the mistakes, secrecy and despair we are hoping to change.

But it wasn’t all bad! History was made, and there were moments of giddy excitement. When Vice-President Biden and President Obama took their oaths I grinned, cheered, and waved my flag because specters of torture and racism were falling. When I walked by the White House on my way down to mall I had to pinch myself to believe that someone I respected and who respected my city would be living there. After all, Bush had been president since before I could vote.

Because I think that this is an important moment for Washington as well. As the commentators at a live Slate Political Gabfest I went to on Monday pointed out, Washington is becoming “cool” again. Celebrities want to come here to be close to the Obamas, and the Obamas want to get to know the city. And it’s a pretty great place! I’m excited for a president who doesn’t disdain and ignore it as the Bushes did.

So, as I work to recover from my epic journey to the mall yesterday (I fear it may take a week), I am filled with a somber joy. I am confident that our new president will do his best, but I am hesitant to insist that he will succeed. Turning this country around will be an immense job, and we need to think not just what President Obama is going to do to fix our lives, but what we can do to help raise this country up again. What a blessing that we have chosen a president who will let us try.

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