The Old Scout: 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...
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 to see the man take the oath of office -- our first genuine Author-President.
So I hitched 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.
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.
The lines at Union Station to go through security and be scanned and get onto the Capitol grounds were six blocks long, the longest line I have ever stood in, but there is nothing so pleasant as being in a crowd of happy people when you are happy about the same thing they're happy about. Up above, cops with automatic rifles on parapets and walkways, and down below the mob milled along Louisiana Avenue and the line inched forward and the good will radiated up from the crowd.
It was more than Democrats feeling their oats or African-Americans celebrating the unimaginable. 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.
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.
The crowd down below the podium had their opinions. There was a profound silence when Mrs. Bush was announced and walked out. People watched the big screen and when Mrs. Obama appeared, there was a roar, and when the Current Occupant and Mr. Cheney came out of the Capitol, a low and heartfelt rumble of booing. Dignified booing. Old black ladies around me tried to shush them -- "Don't do that!" they hissed -- but it's a democracy, and how will those men know how we feel if we don't tell them?
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.
The great moment came as the mob flowed slowly across the grounds. I heard loud cheers behind me and there on the giant screen was the Former Occupant and Mrs. Bush saying goodbye to the Obamas in the parking lot behind the Capitol, the Marine helicopter behind them.
The crowd stopped and stared, a little stunned at the reality of it.
The Bushes went up the stairs, turned, waved and disappeared into the cabin, 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 of St. Paul is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty."