Flying in, we take the route over the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson, the Tidal Basin: the signs and symbols of the great republic. And you’ve seen it all a thousand times but you can’t stop looking, and you can’t help it, your eyes well. After a minute you realize you must have a moony look on your face, and you lean back. The lady to your right, engrossed in a paperback of “Marley & Me,” sees nothing. Your gaze continues across the aisle, and you see another woman looking out the window in the same way, avidly taking it in. Her view includes the Capitol. She leans back.
I know her. A woman of the Reagan era, an old acquaintance, and when we land we greet each other. “Isn’t it something that no matter how many times you see it, it still grabs your heart?” I say. She responds, wonderingly, “I never see it that I’m not moved. To this day.”
We are grownups, we have seen limits and imperfections, compromises and mess, and yet this brilliant thing endures. Lincoln will always be Lincoln, and nothing can mess that up.
The District is braced happily for the onslaught. You can’t fail to see the excitement. The inauguration is all anyone talks about. Everyone seems to preface their observations with how many they’ve seen. “This is my fourth inauguration,” and “This is my eighth time with one of these.” But everyone feels that this one is different.
“The calm before the storm” said the desk clerk in the quiet lobby of a Georgetown hotel. “It starts Friday.” The shops are full of tchotchkes: Obama cocktail glasses and coins, plastic Obamas standing at podiums waving flags. A clerk shows me the Obama wristwatches for $35. I buy a friend an Obama Action Figure whose arms and legs can be configured to walk forward, pointing us toward the future.
A cabdriver crows that he’ll have an easy time getting around next week: “No traffic allowed into town but cabs and limos!” The USAir agents at Reagan National say they’ll be sleeping over in the airport—in cots, right over there where the shuttle security lines are—on Monday and Tuesday nights. Roads in and out of the city will be closed. “A slumber party,” an agent laughed. “At least it’s not for something sad.”
Barack Obama isn’t president yet, but already is he is omnipresent. At the Hay-Adams Hotel, security tents block off the street. Motorcades come and go. He dines at a private home in a neighborhood where you can’t see the numbers of the houses from the street, but it’s clear where the gathering is from the sharpshooters on the roof.
A young Obama staffer comes for breakfast, roots in the pockets of his overcoat, and spills two BlackBerrys onto the tablecloth. He has just been given a tour of the West Wing. He had been warned so many times that it’s smaller than you think that he’s struck by how big it is. And the Oval Office. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it in the movies, the sight of it catches the throat. This is the real one.
This week in the transition headquarters, the president-elect walked by a row of offices. Someone had given him a basketball; he dribbled it as he walked down the hall. Suddenly a young veteran of the campaign turned to another and said, “The black guy with the basketball is the next president.” For them it’s a rolling realization: You know it, lose it in the flow, realize it again, and suddenly it’s new again. The aide says, “He’s in a line with Washington and Lincoln, and luminaries like JFK and Reagan.” He shakes his head wonderingly. I have seen new guys say this about new presidents most of my professional life. I never see it that I’m not moved. To this day.
The first draft of the inaugural address was done by this Tuesday, and it went into staffing for comment. The president-elect and speechwriter Jon Favreau have aimed for short. Mr. Obama had declared it short. But it’s growing longer, as speeches do.
Mr. Obama is a writer, and he sees himself as a writer. It is an important part of his self-perception. He is the author of two books, the first of considerable literary merit. He loves words. It is in writing that he absorbs, organizes data, thinks his way through to views and decisions, all of which adds to the expectations for his speech.
Everyone wants to be part of it. Mr. Obama’s aides and speechwriters have been engulfed with ideas, thoughts and language, as they say, for the speech. An acquaintance of speechwriter Favreau got in a cab, chatted with the driver, and mentioned he knew someone in the new administration. The cabdriver handed him a fully written inaugural address, and asked him to pass it on. Later, thinking of this, unbidden and for no clear reason, the words of the theme of the 1956 movie “Friendly Persuasion” came to mind: “Thee is mine, though I don’t know many words of praise / Thee pleasures me in a hundred ways.” Jessamyn West’s celebration of the Quakers of Indiana during the Civil War is a tale of a community living apart from a great drama and yet within that drama. And so the cabdriver, who works a shift, is up at night writing his inaugural address for Mr. Obama, knowing, this being America, the most fluid country in history, a place of unforeseen magic, that he would meet someone who knows someone. We all want to be together, to work together, we all want to be part of the history, of the time. And why not? Join in. Lightning strikes.
And this has grown old, and maybe it’s the last time to say it, history moving so fast, but there’s something we all know so well that we are perhaps forgetting to see it in the forefront. But a long-oppressed people have raised up a president. It is moving and beautiful and speaks to the unending magic and sense of justice of our country. The other day the journalist John O’Sullivan noted that 150 years after slavery, a black man stands in the place of Lincoln in the inaugural stands, and this country has proved again that anything is possible, that if we can do this we can do anything. That is a good thing to remember at a difficult time.
What is required for full enjoyment of an inauguration, from opening prayers to speeches to marching bands is, in the great 19th-century phrase, the willing suspension of disbelief. If you don’t put your skepticism aside, you will not fully absorb and experience the drama. You must allow it to be real for you. Those two young people on the stage did not really take poison and die, but Romeo and fair Juliet did, and that is the reason the audience, which knows the actors still live, says, with genuine feeling, “Oh, no!”
To believe, suspend disbelief. We have been through this before, the flags and fine speeches, the brass donkey paperweight, the glass elephant, the rise and fall of administrations, the coming and going of figures great and small. It’s good to put that aside for a few days, to remove yourself from politics, partisanship and faction, to suspend your disbelief, to be grateful that the signs and symbols endure, as does the republic, and raise a toast: “To the president of the United States.”