I’m very happy – well, ecstatic, if you must know – that Barack Obama will be our next president, but his inauguration day is starting to sound downright scary. I’ve lived in Washington and its suburbs since Nixon was president, and I've never seen anything quite like the inaugural fever that has seized the area this time around.
Washingtonians are used to street closings for World Bank meetings, the Marine Corps Marathon, bomb scares, demonstrations and parades. Security checks and hideous concrete barriers and perimeter fencing are so common as to be barely noticeable. And we know that going to and from the Mall by Metro for any big event means getting back home very late. Crowds? Washington always has crowds.
But one to three million people pressed together on the Mall like playing cards in an unopened deck? The thought of that many humans occupying 300 acres boggles the mind. Even more worrisome is the news that the crowd will have to share a mere 5,000 portable toilets. Do the math. I don’t mean to be indelicate, but if you’re planning to be there, you might want to skip your morning coffee.
Of course, you have to get there before the facilities become a concern. The officials involved are using aversion therapy to discourage all but the hardiest souls – the list of things you can’t do and can’t bring with you is truly daunting, and additional warnings are issued daily. Hauling small children along is strongly discouraged, for good reason. If you feel you must bring a little kid to stand out in the freezing cold in a huge, boisterous crowd for hours on end, be prepared for misery, because you can’t use a stroller or bring a backpack or hamper filled with goodies to keep the children happy. If you stay for the parade, you’ll have to pass up lunch because you can’t bring it with you. You may bring a camera but no camera bag. You can’t bring much of anything, in fact, except your own body.
Northern Virginians are crying foul because all the bridges between Virginia and the District will be closed to personal vehicles. Walking across is allowed, but only one bridge will be turned over completely to pedestrians. On the others, buses and emergency vehicles will claim the roads and pedestrians must stay on the walkways, which are just about wide enough for two people side by side. If tens of thousands decide to walk across, things could get a little crowded, but let’s hope no one will end up in the Potomac on a January day. Many Virginians are resentful that no driving restrictions will be imposed on Marylanders. But it’s not as if anyone can drive right up to the Capitol and park a car. Parking spaces for miles around the inaugural site will be closed to vehicles other than the expected 10,000 chartered buses. People who have to work that day, particularly the staffs of several large hospitals and the city’s restaurants and bars, are also trying to figure out how to get in and how to get out.
Let’s assume, though, that most people who want to be there will overcome the obstacles and will be present when the new president is sworn in. Only the 240,000 with tickets to sit or stand on the Capitol grounds will be close enough to witness the inauguration ceremonies with the naked eye. Those standing on the Mall will be too far away to see much. So big video screens will be hoisted aloft here and there to broadcast the entire ceremony to the crowd. In other words, a gigantic throng will make the long, slow trek to claim standing space on the Mall in winter weather so they can watch the inauguration... on TV.
When the ceremony and parade are over, all those people will have to get back where they came from, whether it’s a hotel room or home. If, say, a million people want to ride Metro at the same time, and Metro can move 170,000 bodies per hour, max... again, do the math. And bring a book to read while you wait.
It sounds like a uniquely Washington kind of mess is shaping up, but so what? This is an event unlike any we have ever witnessed. Whether they voted for Obama or not, everyone realizes that our nation has achieved an extraordinary milestone that we never expected to see in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the country is in such desperate straits right now that only an idiot would wish failure on the new administration. Just being there in the crowd when the son of a white American woman and a black Kenyan man becomes President of the United States will be thrilling enough for many, even if they can’t see much of anything.
Personally, I wouldn’t miss a second of it. I will watch it all, from the best seat in the house – the sofa in our family room, in front of our HDTV.