Recalling Obama’s Inauguration

A year ago, we were people taking back our country.


By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

A year ago, euphoria broke out all over, remember? I saved some year-old notes to bottle the moment in history. See if they help take you back to a bright shining day that now seems distant, or as a friend put it, "quite some time ago."

From my journal:

The way they walked at the break of Tuesday, Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 2009, said it all without words. Thousands streamed into the Washington winter sunrise walking like thunder toward the Capitol for the high noon swearing-in of President Barack Obama. Then it swelled to a multitude of two million on a long civilian march. The body language translated to plain English: we the people are taking back this town and country today. A "sharp sparkle" (to quote the Inaugural poet) floated in the arctic air.

As I woke early that day, I felt a stir listening to the conversation between two lovely, fiery houseguests as they dressed for a date with history they each crossed many miles to keep. One, a public defender in Los Angeles, is the granddaughter of a man of color born 100 years ago in the Jim Crow era. He wrote for African-American newspapers in Pittsburgh and other cities. She said she felt a "responsibility" to her dignified late grandfather to be nowhere but there that day. She made me realize many in the throng brought the spirits of loved ones. Obama won her over only after hearing his sensible wife Michelle speak. "She wouldn't marry just anybody," she said.

The other, a lawyer in South Carolina, is 47 like me, also the new president's age. Like Obama, she's biracial: with a white mother and a black father. Her parents are prominent educators and lively people who met my parents when they were neighbors in a city housing project in Harlem. Her white Irish grandmother babysat us together when we were very young in the early 1960s. While my father was doing a medical residency and my mother was pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia, I was out on Broadway seeing the world with my first friend and playmate, Kelly Seabrook. The question often asked on the sidewalk was, were we sweet babies twins?

Sweet it is the world has more public room now for private life stories that span black and white, like hers and Obama's Kansan-Kenyan parentage. The children in the 1960s are now living some of the dreams of those tumultuous times, even the murdered ones.

For Kelly, the take-home memory was the weeping and hugs all around among friends, families and strangers after Obama was actually sworn in. For Bostonian Tim Kirk, a white friend I met years ago on a losing Democratic presidential campaign, it was much the same: "I was cold as hell weeping on the Mall, embracing strangers." High noon was a long time coming.

Plenty of young eyes were watching too, glad to delete or change the channel from the gray George W. Bush years. I was reminded of youth's vigor by Trevor Gopnik, 17, planning to "bounce" (leave) his father's 50th birthday party at midnight Monday to drive downtown with his three best friends. Four guys, high school seniors all, mobilized for adventure and willing to sleep in a car--or a girl's dorm room, if necessary--to beat the rush. This will be their coming-of-age frame of American history, a story worth the telling when they leave home for college. At the Inaugural Eve party for Trevor's father, I wore a green silk dress with gold embroidery that already came to symbolize a new day for me. We all live in hope, though fear is not far behind in the bleak mid-winter economy. Don't we all know that.

A few miles across town, the re-invented media danced all night at the Huffington Post's splashy event at the Newseum, kind of an overhyped bloggers ball. For an ink-stained wretch who spent ten years as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, this event captured something else: the rise of the ethereal media and the fall of the old-fashioned city room vibe that goes hand-in-hand with coffee, editors, a union, and regular paychecks. And yet I've been blogging on politics over the last year. While I enjoy the freedom of the form, there is nothing like a self-respecting newspaper that exists in time and place. Remember the bittersweet song, "Both Sides Now?"

Joni Mitchell got it right. Still somehow, if it hadn't been for the intense political engagement catalyzed by the Huffington Post and other online sites, the 2008 presidential election might have been very different. So thank you, Arianna, for making some history of your own.

At a Sunday Lincoln Memorial concert which topped the Inaugural festivities, a few tears dropped. Opera soprano Renee Fleming sent a gorgeous, profoundly optimistic melody heavenward: "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the musical Carousel. My most transcendental moment was seeing three favorites: Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Abraham Lincoln (seated in marble) harmonizing the defiant folk classic "This Land Is Your Land," joined by just about everyone who came. That song sings of a hauntingly American arc: loss, reclamation and taking back our land and country to make it whole again.