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Inauguration Journal: A View From the Crowd

Like many Chicagoans, I made the journey to Washington, D.C., to see firsthand the inauguration of our 44th President, Chicago’s own Barack Obama. I first realized the enormity of the event when I arrived at O’Hare airport and found 110 people waitlisted on my oversold flight. Even after our plane was replaced with a larger 747, 40 people were still left at the gate. 

Unlike many who made the journey, my trip to Washington was a bipartisan affair. On Sunday evening, as D.C. was filling-up with Obama supporters, I had the opportunity to join Bush’s White House team for a farewell bash. A casual affair, the “Crossing the Finish Line” celebration was co-hosted by the two men who had served as White House Chief of Staff during Bush’s eight years in office. Names were added to the “Bush-Cheney Alumni Association” register, Texas-style barbecue was served and everyone danced to an excellent band that played hits from the 70s and 80s. Attendees included members of the cabinet including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The President and Mrs. Bush arrived a little after 9:00 p.m. and immediately stepped onto the stage. Mr. Bush gave a short and thoughtful speech, thanking his team for their dedication and excellence during his term. Many people in the audience were in tears. At the end, he invited everyone to stop by their home in Dallas for dinner anytime, saying they will always be welcome. The same group was invited to Andrews Air Force Base to join the Bushes for their official departure.

Inauguration Day brought a glimpse, albeit a less intimate one, into the next chapter of American history. My sister, Nathalie Ames, and I were fortunate enough to be among the 240,000 to have tickets to the inauguration. We were in the “Silver Section,” which was the furthest ticketed area from the stage, and we shared it with tens of thousands of other people. 

Having scoped out our section beforehand and ruled out the necessity of a predawn seating stakeout, we awoke around 8 a.m., bundled up, grabbed some coffee, and then boarded a packed Metro train toward the festivities.

When we arrived at our station, we navigated the crowds and got in line to the Silver Section. Fifteen minutes later, we had cleared security and were relaxing as we read the morning paper. I would read later that in some of the closer sections where the security screening was more rigorous, the security staff was overwhelmed and some 4,000 – 5,000 people did not make it through in time.

The crowd as a whole was subdued. It was early (especially for those who had been out celebrating the night before) and a brisk 32 degrees. A few people climbed trees for a bird’s eye view, others wrapped themselves in blankets and napped on the lawn. Many were already jockeying for position by the giant Jumbotron monitor located in our section.

The military bands started playing around 10 a.m., followed by the arrival of dignitaries, which was broadcast on the giant monitor. The crowd paid increasing attention as the past and current politicians on the screen became more prominent. The camera turned away from the stage briefly when Chicago’s own Oprah Winfrey arrived and took her seat for the festivities.

We felt the excitement building in the crowd as 11:30 a.m. approached. It was like an elaborate wedding ceremony. Everyone watched on their Jumbotron as the wedding party (the politicians), the flower girls (Malia and Sasha), the mother of the bride (Marian Robinson) and the officiants (the Supreme Court Justices) filed in and assumed their respective places on stage. However, everyone anticipated when the music would shift, signaling the big moment when the bride (Barack) would make his grand entrance!

Most people had been standing for at least an hour, many longer. Everyone roared with laughter as a voice came over the PA system saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats.” Only a small number of the estimated 2 million visitors who came to watch history in the making actually had seats.

The ceremony was short and sweet. The crowd was highly attentive, listening intently to every note of music and every spoken word. If someone began talking loudly, the crowd gave them a quick shush; nobody wanted to miss anything.

When Barack took the oath of office, everyone sought to memorialize the moment. I have never seen so many cameras and camcorders clicking and whirling away in one place at one time.

The crowd started to scatter after the Benediction, and was moving pretty fast by the time the poet came to the podium. Fences were toppled or climbed over, gates opened, and everyone was on the move. Some people walked out on the ice of the reflecting pond. I watched amazed as I noticed that one group was standing ankle deep in the freezing water.

Later in the evening, many people came out to attend celebratory balls and parties. When we boarded the Metro around 7 p.m., about half the riders were in gowns and black ties. There were 10 official balls where Barack and Michelle were expected to appear. At an average of about 3,000 people per ball, 30,000 were included. Many of our friends attended the Home State Ball for guests from Obama’s home states of Illinois and Hawaii.

My sister and I attended the opening of “Presidents in Waiting,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Coincidentally, the building was also the scene of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. 

By the time we arrived at the home of our host, my sister and I were exhausted. The walking and standing in freezing air had taken its toll. 

It is miraculous that the Obamas survived the day. They navigated a marathon schedule as our nation’s new President and First Lady with grace and humor. Getting sworn into a position like President of the United States in front of 2 million people (not to mention an audience of several million more watching on televisions all over the world) is a big deal all by itself, certainly enough to get one’s adrenaline going. Add to that having coffee with the outgoing President and Vice President, hosting a lunch, walking in a parade, being the focal point in a viewing stand, attending 10 different black-tie balls and then settling in for your first night in a new home — I am exhausted just thinking about it!

Unfortunately, there is no time for a honeymoon. I hope the Obamas were at least able to sleep in the next morning before Barack rolled up his sleeves to take on the daunting task that lies before him. But what a day! I have never felt more proud to be from Chicago and to be an American.

Jennifer Ames is a sales associate with Coldwell Banker. She has been recognized by the Chicago Association of Realtors as one of Chicago’s Top 10 residential agents every year for the last decade based on her closed sales volume. For more information, visit jenniferames.com, or visit her blog at liveandplayinchicago.com.

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