On January 20, 2009, at 12:00 p.m. EST, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. And I was there…sort of.
In fact, the only reason I know he was sworn in is because I heard 1.6 million people screaming with excitement just after it happened—that, and I watched the news that night.
To be in Washington, DC during inauguration week was to be a part of history, as well as a part of the chaos. Everyone descending on the city knew this going in. I certainly did. And with my ticket, courtesy of Republican Senator John Cornyn, I was one of the lucky ones. Or so I thought.
In early December, I received an email from Senator John Cornyn’s office notifying me that I was one of about 390 individuals who would be receiving an inaugural ticket from the junior senator from Texas. (I’m a diehard Democrat, but when I found out I got a ticket from Cornyn, I promised myself I’d consider voting for him in 2016). I was actually given two tickets! I called my dear friend Emily from Illinois who had worked for now-President Obama’s Senate campaign. She was in. So I booked a flight with miles graciously donated to me by a friend from law school. I contacted another friend in Fairfax, Virginia, about a place to stay. I was determined to do this trip somewhat economically. I purchased tickets for the Black Tie and Boots Ball (my biggest expense), and dropped my tuxedo off at the cleaners.
6:30 a.m. Emily and I were at the Fairfax metro station.
7:20 a.m. We were on the train.
Fifty minutes to board wasn’t terrible, we thought. This should be relatively painless, we mused. So much for all the insanity, we scoffed. We. were. wrong.
What should’ve taken thirty minutes on a normal rush hour day took two hours. We knew it would be long, but not like this. Were we on a stagecoach from Philly? This was a few miles of rails. We finally exited the train into a sea of people.
9:20 a.m. It was overwhelming, but on the most historic morning in quite some time, everyone was still jubilant. People were chanting OH-BAH-MUH. The metro employees were even chipper, and if you’ve ever spent time in DC, you know that doesn’t happen very often. One would come on the loudspeaker and say, in an almost melodic tone, “KEEP IT MOVING!” The crowd even began repeating this line. I thought, “We’re in the midst of bedlam, but it’s the happiest bit of bedlam imaginable.”
We emerged into the sunlight…and more people. This was Mardi Gras on steroids. And it was cold. Really cold. But I was ready. I had layered appropriately. And I wore my coat designed for sub-zero temps. Plus, I felt the body heat generated by the masses would certainly keep us nice and toasty.
We headed to the entrance and security gate for blue ticket holders. The tickets entitled us to enter a standing-room only section immediately behind the seated area. We had been informed by Cornyn’s staffer that these were premier standing-room tickets. Indeed, we had checked the area out the day before and couldn’t be happier about where we were supposed to end up.
9:45 a.m. We finally found the blue ticket holder entrance, after kicking ourselves for not leaving earlier. But still, we’d be fine. We had plenty of time. We were wrong again. And we weren’t prepared for what we encountered next.
Thousands were still in line, in our section alone. Everyone was holding blue tickets, but nobody was moving. We ended up running into two friends from Austin who had been in line in the exact same spot since 7:00 a.m. This made us feel marginally better about getting an extra hour of sleep.
We stood in that general area for an hour, and moved approximately 25 feet. We were still at least 200 yards from the security checkpoint. Time was running out. People were getting frustrated. When someone appeared to be “cutting,” they were booed until they moved back again. Nothing was going to make any of us move backwards. It was full steam ahead, at a snail’s pace. Our faith was waning, but most hoped that despite the lines, we would get through eventually and in time. We had blue tickets after all! Surely this fancy piece of card stock with Dianne Feinstein’s signature and a presidential seal on it would get us to the promised land beyond the metal detectors!
11:30 a.m. All the hope that had been instilled into the throngs of people waiting to enter the blue gate had transformed into frustration and anxiety. Even someone who I’m pretty sure was Jesse Jackson came pushing back through the blue line to get out. If he was giving up, what were the rest of us supposed to do?
People were stacked so close to one another that you could lift your feet off the ground and not fall, which was actually nice since you couldn’t feel your feet from the cold anyway. It seemed like nobody was getting in. But then a glimmer of hope came in the form of a national guardsman.
The guardsman approached. He was wearing fatigues. Our hopes soared. Surely he was here to get us through the throng. Or at least he would have information for us—precious information about what was taking so long. If anyone knew, he would.
Instead, the stern guardsman merely said, “The generators supplying electricity to the metal detectors went down. Security stopped letting people through for an hour or so, but they’re wanding you through now, one by one. I’m not saying you’re getting in, but there’s a chance.”
“Wanding” us!? One by one? The words deflated any remaining hope we had.
11:50 a.m. We made a tough decision. We left the line.
We were nowhere near any of the 4,000 jumbotrons set up (they were all over on the Mall…you know, the “cheap seats”), so we maneuvered to a spot on the corner by a tree and strained our ears. There was a young boy who had climbed up into it to try and see. We could see the Capitol, sort of. We knew Obama was there. Getting ready to speak. Getting ready to bring hope to the 1.6 million people in and around the National Mall, and to the millions and millions of others watching from their warm homes and offices. We knew this, but all we could hear was the buzz of police helicopters above and the sounds of angry ticket holders yelling “Let us in!” at security personnel through the iron fence that divided us from one great moment in history.
12:02 p.m. President Obama spoke to America. And when I finally read the remarks on my blackberry thirty minutes later, I was, indeed, filled with hope for the future. January 20, 2009 was an incredible moment in our country’s history. The President’s somber call to service was impressive both in substance and tone. And even though I never made it to the blue section where I could’ve heard and seen him speak, to hear those millions cheer from the National Mall sent chills down my spine.
Despite the disappointment of never making it through the gates, I wouldn’t have been anywhere else on that day. Millions came from near and far, most witnessed history firsthand, and a few of us witnessed a little bit of incompetence and a power outage. Regardless, the inauguration was an inspiring event, and a few failed generators and irritating TSA security personnel can’t take that away. Traveling a couple thousand miles just to be in the same city as this event was enough for me.
On January 20, 2009, when Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States, I was there to witness it…sort of.
Casey Kaplan is a Dallas-based attorney.