It was like “The Canterbury Tales.”
That’s what it was like last Saturday, in LaGuardia Airport, on the shuttle to Washington packed full of people going to the inauguration of President Obama. A handsome, affluent black woman in first class—fur hat, chic silver jewelry—laughed on a cell phone as a businessman—tall, black, middle aged—hurried down the aisle in black overcoat and Burberry scarf. A young man in slouchy jeans and dark watchman’s cap, iPod buds in place, nodded, in coach, to the tune in his head. Two young white men in beige cowboy hats and gray fleece jackets came on board. Where you from? “Montana!” they said in unison. A boy, 10 or so, learning-impaired, sat with his grandmother. Where you from? I asked him. Shyly: “Detroit. Kentucky.” Middle-aged and older black women in their proud, broad-brimmed hats sat primly, purses clutched on laps. A young black family all in jumpsuits posed for pictures. An air of great sweetness. The tender way people laugh too loud when they’re a little nervous, and excited, and know they’re part of something and it’s big.
Everyone had a story. It was this young woman’s first time on a plane. Two little girls, 8 and 11, with their mother, from West Palm Beach, Fla., had never been to Washington. “We’re going to see Mr. Obama,” the older girl said, noting the obvious to another dullard adult. I told her I’d met him and he’s a very nice man, and her eyes went wide: You can meet him?
We left on time and as we taxied onto the runway the pilot came on. “This is the USAir 4 p.m. shuttle to Washington, D.C.,” he said in the old-fashioned Chuck Yeager style, and from the back of the plane came a roar of cheers and applause. When the sound reached the cockpit, the pilot came on again. “Hope has come to America,” he said. The plane went wild.
The whole experience the next few days was marked for me by a new or refreshed knowledge that those who had not felt included or invited in the past were now for the first time truly here, and part of it all, in great numbers. And I suppose the fact that this would never have come about without the support, the votes, of the traditionally invited and included gave a special air of inclusiveness to the event. There was great kindness between people and true friendliness. No one was different. Everyone, whatever their views or votes, was happy.
This is what you saw. Knit caps, parkas, plaid scarves, face warmers, hoods up, braced against the wet cold, flags on light posts, security tents, motorcades, police vans, checkpoints, flashing lights, people hopping from foot to foot when crowds slowed and they had to stand still. Stately African-American women in sweeping mink coats. A friend, a canny social observer, said, “The antifur people aren’t going to take them on!” I laughed and realized yes, PETA just took one on the chin. Mink wearing will be safe in the new era. A former GOP ambassador told a friend, after walking the streets, “There is a feeling of good.” Not happiness or gaiety, he said, but good—good feeling, good humor.
The traffic was so bad, and so chaotically handled, that everyone had a story. Mine: Stuck for more than an hour near the Mall one night and late for an appointment, I jumped out of a car and hailed an open-air bicycle with a backseat. The driver threw a blanket on me and began to pump the pedals. “What is this called?” I shouted as we raced around limos and town cars. I expected some politically correct name like Energy Saving Mobile Apparatus. He looked back at me quizzically. “A rickshaw!” We got there on time, 15 blocks in four minutes, and like a happy capitalist, the driver, gauging the moment, the need and the competition, opened bidding at $25. I was grateful to pay.
The MSNBC booth was near the Mall, and all day and night hundreds of people gathered and cheered the anchors and guests, and jumped up and down when the cameras scanned the crowd. People were holding cell phones and shouting “Mom, that’s me on TV, in my white jacket, I’m waving!” The audio of the shows was boomed out in big speakers, and whenever a guest said the word “Obama” or “America,” the crowd cheered. It was nice. It wasn’t just Mr. Obama they were cheering, it was America. There was a low-key patriotic fervor. Someone asked if it was like the Reagan inaugural in 1981, and I said yes, but as if the feeling of those days had spilled out of homes and parties and onto the streets, where all could see it. A friend said, Was it Jacksonian? Yes, but nothing got trashed. It was a very special thing, this inaugural. No one who made it to Washington this week, old hand or new, ever experienced anything quite like it, all the peace and warmth in the bitter cold.
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Every time a nation does something big, the members of that nation who are 4 feet tall—the children who are 10 and 12—are looking up and absorbing. Forty years ago, in 1968, that grim and even-grimmer-in-retrospect year of war protests, race riots, taunts and assassinations, our 4-foot-tall citizens would have been justified in thinking that America is a scary place marked by considerable unhappiness and injustice. But the past week they could look up and see either harmony and happiness or peaceful acceptance and resolve. Washington was a town full of families and full of kids this week, and they must have picked up this: Anything is possible in America. We decide to go to the moon and soon it’s “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” We decide to cure polio and soon it’s a nation of Wilma Rudolphs, running. We struggle over civil rights and then the young black man raises his hand and says “I, Barack Hussein Obama . . .” We so rock. That’s what 4-foot-tall Americans must have learned this week. A generation that will come to adulthood in 2020 and 2030 and has in their heads this sense of optimism and America-love will likely be stronger for it. It augurs well.
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As for Mr. Obama, some thoughts that start with a hunch. He has the kind of self-confidence that will serve him well or undo him. He has to be careful about what he wants, because he’s going to get it, at least at the beginning. He claimed a lot of moderate territory in his Inaugural Address (deepen and expand our alliances, put aside debates on size of government and aim for government that is competent and constructive), but no one is certain, still, what governing philosophy guides him. He would be most unwise to rouse the sleeping giant that is American conservatism. One thing that would rouse it, and begin to bring its broken pieces back together, would be radical movement on abortion, such as pushing the so-called Freedom of Choice Act.
There was another great gathering in Washington this week, of those who themselves are not always invited or included, because of their unflinching views. The Right to Life march was marked, according to participants, by an air of peacefulness, and unusual sweetness. The attitude toward President Obama? They prayed for him. As great Americans, which is what they are, would.