This piece - originally titled "Obama: Premonitions of a new epoch" - was written and published four years ago, when the events it describes transpired. It is being re-presented today for obvious reasons. Do I stand by everything I wrote? Not exactly. Much has changed. More to the point, much didn't change. But this makes, among other things, a fascinating time capsule.
The essay is also re-appearing in the midst of a month devoted to my recently completed short film "Class of 2002", a fictional photo-memoir focusing on five young people in the past decade. Therefore I'm using the occasion to encourage you to watch the movie if you haven't yet, and would also note that the film actually provides an interesting complement/counterpoint to the following essay; while touching on many themes addressed below, the film's tone is far more pessimistic and melancholy.
Like many in my generation, I've seesawed between a sense of disappointment and frustration on the one hand, and on the other a yearning for, well, hope and change, which Obama represented so vividly in 2008. Since then, there have been disappointments and frustrations aplenty, with him and others, in politics and elsewhere. Yet perhaps by reflecting on the worried but still vivid optimism of that freezing cold winter day, we can at least momentarily cultivate a feeling of positivity.
I arrived in New York around midnight. This was already the third leg of a long, overnight trip to Washington, D.C. but it was only here that I began to see evidence of the gathering storm. There had been hints when I boarded in Boston - my 7:30 bus was cancelled and they were boarding people whenever they had the chance. But in New York they were boarding in relays, one bus after another after another, and a line stretched through the entire area and around the corner. I would say the majority of the crowd was African-American, and about half was young - with some, but not an overwhelming, overlap between the two.
Earlier that morning, I'd attended an annual NAACP breakfast in honor of Dr. King, who would have turned 80 this year. On everyone's lips, but especially those of the black attendees, there was an emotional, almost overwhelmed tone, a sense of still pent-up disbelief slowly releasing itself, coalescing into an unbearable excitement. There are so many aspects to Obama's newness - his youth, his name, his style, his savvy, his intelligence, his politics - but the most potent and poignant is his color. And the genuine (and genuinely non-exclusive) pride that the black population, young and old, male and female, liberal and conservative, seems to feel at his accomplishment has been palpable. As I've noted, most of those flocking to D.C. (at least who I saw: considering the numbers, this is extremely anecdotal evidence, folks) were young whites and somewhat older African-Americans, probably majority in their thirties and forties, sometimes bringing kids along, sometimes bringing along their folks - meaning those old enough to remember when a black person couldn't even sit at the front of the bus, let alone take one to see a black president getting sworn in.
The line moved swiftly, leaving just enough time for the buzzing crowd to get acquainted, and giving people working at the Port Authority a chance to shout their support and share their enthusiasm. The buses left 42nd street in one big contingent, zooming down the highway while passengers tried to get some rest - which was only possible intermittently. After about an hour, we pulled over to the side of the highway and the driver shut off the engine, restarted it, shut it off, restarted it, stepped outside to check the problem, returned, shut it off, restarted it, shut it off...a monotonous description? Believe me, it was even worse experiencing it.
This went on for about twenty minutes until he finally admitted that something was wrong with the "air brake" (I don't really know what this is), and the bus was stuck. Meanwhile trucks and other buses zoomed by on our left every few seconds, rattling and shaking our coach as they passed. Occasionally, as we waited for rescue, a bus would pull over in front of us and let people on in groups of ten. After about an hour, I escaped, tramping through the snowy banks on the edge of a Jersey highway, flopping down in my new seat and trying to get what little sleep I could manage over the next 24 hours. This would not be the last setback, the last experience of the tedium of waiting, en masse, for something to happen. But for the meantime, I drifted off in my cramped quarters, leg dangling over the aisle, as we barrelled south, destined for our Mecca, the capital of our Union, south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Around five or six am, the bus pulled into a dingy little parking lot located at the mangy rear end of Union Station, and we shuffled out into the early-morning streets. Some took the subway, others avoided the trouble and walked, up towards the gleaming white dome of the Capitol. We got about as close as we could, where ticket-holders stood in long lines (they had been waiting for hours and one section had already been closed off at six, filled to capacity). I ended up in a growing group of general-admission (read: ticketless) attendees who waited behind a barrier, the cops promising us that it would be opened promptly at seven.
By seven-thirty, the sky bright with the rising sun, we remained, patiently waiting for permission to proceed. Eventually the police officer emerged with his bullhorn to yell at the crowd impatiently (as if he had been the one waiting, not us) but nobody lost their temper and the Guardsmen standing around the perimeter were friendly and answered what questions they could. Of course, even once the barrier was opened and we entered the central zone in groups of fifty, the Guardsmen - from all over the country - could not tell us how to get to the Mall. Nor, it turned out, could the metropolitan police.
We walked north, then south, back and forth as new sets of directions were given (this was, as I was coming to realize, a terribly organized event). As a result we passed several times the only group of protesters, an angry clot of about eight or nine people, mostly women, with angry faces, holding signs which read, among other niceties, "Obama loves fags," "God hates all countries," "Thank God for dead troops" (supposedly because the military allows gays in, even in cognito) and, most tastefully of all, "Hell to the Chief" with the outline of stick figures sodomizing each other in front of the American flag. They were greeted with disbelief, more amused than outraged, by the passerby, which often gleefully shouted back in their face, "O-bam-a! O-bam-a!"
I continued to wander up and down the avenues, frustratingly able to see where I wanted to go, but unable to get there until finally the border was breached. After hours of approaching my destination (which had been, the whole time, less than a mile or so away) I finally reached the Mall, where - supposedly - millions were gathered (I believe it). I found a spot directly in front of the Capitol, though extremely far back, so I could at least see the event, even if the figures were too small to recognize. (By the way, did I mention how cold it was? It was freezing, freezing - and I was wearing a woolen hat, gloves, and several layers. Most cold of all, however, were my toes, scantily clad in black Adidas sneakers - next Inauguration I'll remember to wear boots. It was a little warmer in the crowd, what with all the body heat, but it still wasn't any "day in the park"- even if it was that, literally speaking.)
Jumbotrons were stationed around the Mall and the crowd responded boisterously to the celebrities and politicians as they appeared on the screen. (Beyonce got cheered, Diddy was booed.) Some snarky young folks traded anti-U2 jokes and chanted enthusiastically, "Ah-nold! Ah-nold!" when the governor of California was shown (there were scattered boos, but mostly by women, I think). However, this flippancy (perhaps best embodied by the throaty "We want Blago!" shouts which went up intermittently) seemed undergirded by a sincere enthusiasm about the event - and it was also part and parcel of the youthful crowd's energy (an air-filled globe was bounced around atop outstretched hands and had it been warmer, I'm sure there would have been crowd-surfing too).
If the cheering and jeering of show-biz celebs and show-biz celebs/governors was playful, there were louder and often more serious-sounding responses to the straight-up politicians as they emerged onto the rotunda. McCain got warm, respectful applause, the Clintons received pretty enthusiastic cheering, while Lieberman got an overwhelmingly negative jeer. But the most enthusiastic response - prior to the emergence of the new vice-president and the first family - greeted Colin Powell as the crowd waved and cheered with unbridled enthusiasm for the former Bush official who loudly (and more forcefully than most) endorsed Obama and condemned anti-Obama rhetoric last fall.
When Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney stepped out, there was some scattered booing, countered by a few cries of, "Leave them alone, they didn't do anything" (true enough in the former case, not so much in the latter). But unrestrained hostility greeted the spouses of these women. Already, every time Bush's picture appeared or the announcer mentioned his name, the crowd booed. Dick Cheney was the first to show up, rolled out in a wheelchair, and his suddenly pitiful state reminded me of several occasions in The Godfather: Hyman Roth, weakened by age and illness, ambling through the airport before he's cut down, and the Sicilian Don Ciccio who, years after killing Vito Corleone's mother, is feebly ensconced in a wheelchair where he's gutted by the returning Vito. In other words, the pitifulness, the palpable enfeeblement of corrupt power as it exits the stage. From day one, Cheney has played the role of villain to the hilt and he bowed out accordingly.
And then there was Bush. One could almost feel sorry for him as the announcer declared the arrival of the 43rd president and the angry crowd began to chant, "Nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, hey hey hey, good-bye!" Though he often seemed so obtuse, one could almost sense a slight surprise and embarrassment in his face as he emerged to a probable majority of boos over cheers. For so long, he's been propped up in front of diminishing crowds of supporters and here he was before the American people, his presidency coming to an end, and the crowd was more or less calling him a failure, telling him he'd done a terrible job in the most important work of his life, that his eight years had been a disaster for which he was responsible. Just as Nixon grew in poignancy as Watergate faded in the public consciousness, so I suspect the pathetic figure of Bush will as well - but without the dignity that Nixon's intelligence and political cunning conferred upon him.
My own feelings at Bush veer closer to bitter disappointment than unbridled anger. This was a time once when I thought it possible for him to be a good leader, and when I felt an instinctive liking for the amiable fellow. I met him once, briefly, nine years ago, and he was genial and charismatic, compulsively likable. But if he may not have had sinister motives, if his horrible judgement and general incompetence and extremely poor judge of character is not enough to condemn him angrily as a failure, than his unbridled arrogance, his stubborn refusal to admit mistakes and correct course, is more than ample evidence for his forceful condemnation. In my opinion, he earned every boo in that audience, and then some.
Meanwhile, an older black women stood next to me, defending the Bushes, who were roundly booed, and shouting, "No more pigs! No more pork-barrel spending!" as a counterpoint to the angry chorus surrounding her. This would seem an odd counterpoint (it sounds more like a complement) to the Bush-jeering, and she also said, in Bush's defense, "At least he respected the Constitution." The young man standing next to her, who spoke in Bush Sr.'s favor ("he's a nice guy, a war hero") could only respond with respectful silence and lip-biting to "George W. Bush is a nice guy too. He was a good president!" Meanwhile, her daughters, stationed beside us, laughed and shook their heads: "Stop it, Mom, you're embarrassing us!" Later this same woman, who expressed a disgust with a Carter and Clinton coupled with her affection for the Bush family, cheered Obama enthusiastically, especially after some lines which were not-so-veiled jabs at the now-ex-president sitting at his side.
Indeed, the hostility which greeted Bush quickly dissipated as Obama was announced and he was greeted more like a rock star than an incoming president. Again the chants of "O-bam-a!" and "Yes - we - can!" Who could resist? My generation has had little to tie us together. There was the trauma of 9/11, quickly repressed, and tenuous tentacles of a new youth culture - Facebook, You Tube, AIM - which promise some sort of connectivity but haven't delivered it yet. Music? Compare to the sixties, in which dozens of uniquely talented artists were followed by millions and names like "Bob Dylan," "the Beatles," and "Jimi Hendrix" could tie together the tastes, dreams, and attitudes of so many kids. We don't have even one artist of that magnitude today, not even one with half, or a quarter, or a hundredth, of that magnitude. Movies? There was nothing that reached the masses with the force of an "Easy Rider" or "The Graduate," nothing that captures the effervescent zeitgeist of a generation, if there even was an effervescent zeitgeist to capture.
So how shocking, surprising, and heartening, that we get our unifying principle, and it isn't lodged in the culture, or in technology, but in politics, and at the very head of the country which has been unravelling. The president as rock star? After 8 or 9 years in the wilderness - political, cultural, spiritual - it's astonishing that it should come to this. I am sure I will have plenty of disagreements with and doubts about Obama in the years to come, but I will always be thankful that he offered us a unifying experience, a chance to be tied together after existing, dispersed, in our own little holes for so long, for longer than eight years.
I thought he gave an excellent speech, a reiteration of previous points but elegantly weaved and containing a thoughtful power. There were no original lines which can stand aside "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" or "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," but there was one quote, from Scriptures, from St. Paul to be exact, which resonated. "The time has come to put away childish things," he warned. This was the fatal flaw, the Achilles' heel among heels of the Bush years, the childish self-absorption which the country embraced in lieu of a real grappling with the problems of the country and the world. I've written about this elsewhere, but to hear Obama say as much in his speech was inspiring.
Yes, there was an overwhelming sense of the "new" on January 20. I've only experienced it twice in my life, once spurred by an arbitrary change (the dawn of the millennium in 2000, which ultimately underwhelmed) and once spurred by tragedy (9/11, which, as I've previously stated, did not lead to the transformation it should have). We are not living in the same world we were a few years, a few months, even a few days ago. Something fundamental has changed. Those of you who are older have a better sense of the shifts history brings with it, but keep in mind that for my generation, raised after the fall of the Cold War, experiencing in recent years events which had great impact but virtually none close to home, this shift in the public consciousness is something new and unfamiliar.
As I walked in the vast crowds across the mall, past the tall obelisk of the Washington Monument, I was walking into a future which is unmapped, an unnavigable sea of doubt and risk and hope, most enticingly and frighteningly of all, mystery. The ways in which our mind frames things will have to change, because the dull patina which the Bush years placed over our consciousness has begun to be lifted. We will have to face the world as it really is, as the consequences of our actions and the actions of others catches up with us. Surrounded by cheering throngs, faced with a spectacle of transformation and ascension which was inspiring, listening to the uplifting words of Obama, it was easy to feel that the challenges he described were almost abstract, something like the obstacles a movie hero faces on his way to victory, something we experience vicariously without taking in deeply.
But as the hordes of American citizens milled about the capital, trying to find a way home, as I stood atop the hill of the Washington monument, looking out over the hundreds of thousands of people - each individuals, each participants in the American dream, each stars, not extras, in their own lives, and part of an ensemble cast which constitutes the American character - I could feel the fear and uncertainty welling up. This was the future we were marching into and it wasn't, it isn't a game or a movie - it's our lives, it's lived history, it's mass experience. One can condemn the solitude of the iPod, the immersion in virtual reality, the splintering of consciousness, and then faced with the daunting challenges of reality, long again for the dissatisfying yet secure comforts of superficiality once again. But there is no going back, only a wandering, a striving for the truth.
As the crowd lumbered up the streets of Washington, blocked here, squeezed there, faced with officials who didn't seem to have a clue where we were going, this reality seemed more tangible than ever. As one girl said, speaking aloud the suppressed fears of many, "I hope they don't try to use this is a metaphor for Obama's presidency!" And indeed, after hearing those inspiring words, one hopes we aren't let out into the streets, wandering a maze of sterile bureaucracy, drifting from one dead-end to another, trapped in the claustrophobic crowd (somewhere, in the distance, an inspiring official parade marching along in efficiency, but nowhere near us), looking for someone or something to show us the way. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
After three hours, I finally found my way to Union Station. (It was, of course, pretty close to where I'd originally been, though the city would not let us travel such an obvious route.) I stood at a bistro to order a hot dog (my first food since the night before) and listened to a radio show - the host was saying he still had trouble believing what he'd seen, not just a black president but this black president, and that - ultimately - we had Bush to thank for it, so "thanks, Bush." This is when many of these thoughts, which I'm recording now, about the page turning, about the blank future before us, occurred to me so forcefully. Though I'd been there watching, now the truth really sank in.
Barack Obama is now, right now, the president of the United States of America. One era is over. Another has begun.
I entered the station and immediately boarded a bus. For hours, trying to find my way back (and listening to the contradictory directions of different cops, who always made it sound like the station was just around the corner) I'd felt like the greyhound chasing the rabbit, realizing only afterwards that - even though it looked so close - it was on a wire racing before me, always remaining the same distance away. Now I shot through the station onto another Greyhound, like the missile from a slingshot, flopping into my seat. Those of us on the same bus were also on the same boat - I kept hearing people, looking at each other in disbelief, proclaiming with a sort of giggly awe, "I can't believe we did it!"
We pulled out of the station, three hours earlier than expected, and began the trip home. Later our bus would come to a dead halt in immobile traffic, the highway shut down for several hours because of a bomb threat (though we didn't find that out till later) and we sat still for about two and a half hours without explanation, bus chugging with nowhere to go.
But that's a story for another day.
Watch Class of 2002, my short film
Here are some of the original comments left under the Obama piece in 2009, definitely worth reading:
Here are some of the original comments left under the Obama piece in 2009, definitely worth reading: