Part I: In Which I Attend the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States
by Jonathon Van Maren
It wasn’t a particularly normal Monday. On Mondays, I’m used to getting up at my townhouse in Southern Ontario, pouring myself a cup of coffee, and booting up my e-mail. On this Monday morning, I was standing with three friends and almost 800,000 other people on the National Mall in Washington DC, trying to stay warm while straining expectantly and intermittently at both the Stars and Stripes-bedecked Capitol building and the massive jumbotrons lining the Mall.
I’ve been an obsessive history buff since I was young, and have been eager to take advantage of opportunities to in some way witness history ever since I attended a rowdy Stockwell Day rally in Abbotsford, BC when I was twelve. Many non-nerdy people also feel this way—to have a picture or a memory that is not “timeless” but places one in a specific historical context gives people a connection to the times that they live in and gives them a sense of connection to the forces that shape those times. People often spend a lifetime moving parallel to the forces that shape history—to briefly intersect with them, even in a minute way, is a heady feeling. Thus, at the spur of the moment last week when I realized that it was a short ten-hour drive to the January 21, 2013 Inauguration of President Barack Obama, I asked a few friends if they’d like to go. On Saturday, we piled into a car and drove from Toronto to Washington, DC.
I suppose that in many ways, it’s a bit counterintuitive for someone like me to want to attend the Inauguration of this particular president. After all, I work for an anti-abortion organization called the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform, while President Barack Obama is the most rigidly pro-all-abortion president ever elected. And re-elected—as someone who wants Roe v. Wade overturned, I was gut-wrenchingly disappointed on Election Night some two months earlier, as Obama not only won, but won while unapologetically defending the twisted concept of “reproductive rights.” That being said, it is impossible to deny the historical significance of this or any presidential inauguration—and I had only watched previous inaugurations from a laptop in Western Canada. This time, I was close enough to drive.
My friends and I got up at 4:00 AM on Inauguration Day. While not particularly fond of rising at that hour, I was genuinely enthusiastic about hitting the road. I follow both American and Canadian politics obsessively—this time, I could draw my own conclusions about a historical event instead of waiting for others to write and publish theirs. We took the metro into the city, and emerged from the subway into a still-dark historic city that was in full gear preparing for its 57th Presidential Inauguration.
It was only 6:30 AM, but crowds were already starting to form and move towards the National Mall, where the masses (such as my friends and I) were permitted to get as close as possible to the Capitol building steps. Although I was obviously distinctly unenthusiastic about the inauguration of this president, the pervasive enthusiasm and early morning cheeriness was palpable. Hans Zimmer-esque music was pumping through speakers placed from the Capitol steps all the way down the Mall, giving the whole atmosphere an epic feel as we made our way past innumerable police officers and Secret Service agents to be greeted by exuberant volunteers wearing outfits completely made up of Obama paraphernalia. It was chilly, but the atmosphere made it hard to notice as we made our way past a huge CNN “Inauguration Coverage” stage towards the Capitol, which was lit up and glowing white in the pre-dawn darkness.
And then the wait. The Inauguration wasn’t scheduled to start until 11:30—five long hours away. Still, the Mall was filling up quickly (with a predominantly African-American crowd), many with the foresight to bring along chairs and blankets. We sat down and tried to whittle away the time while the jumbotrons broadcasted annoyingly unfunny pre-recorded messages from annoyingly unfunny TV jesters like Ellen DeGeneres and Jimmy Kimmel, which I felt cheapened the atmosphere substantially. However, considering that I don’t watch the sunrise very often, watching the sun come up behind the white dome of the Capitol was a beautiful distraction.
Around 10:30, politicians, dignitaries, and a smattering of celebrities began to file out of the building onto the dais to take their seats. The reactions of the crowd were fascinating. I have to say that I was shocked when Reverend Al Sharpton got a rousing cheer from the crowd—the fact that this out-and-out huckster who built a career on exploiting racial divisions for personal profit got anything other than contempt left me feeling faintly nauseated. The buzz heightened. Is that the mayor of Chicago? someone behind me asked--but Rahm Emmanuel was quickly forgotten when the Clintons arrived. Paul Ryan, who was forcing a distinctly tense smile, got loudly (and I thought ungraciously) booed. Newt Gingrich would have been disappointed to know that his appearance failed to incite any sort of reaction whatsoever, as did the majority of the House of Representatives. When rapper Jay-Z and wife Beyoncé emerged, the cheers were deafening. When Michelle Obama followed, a little black girl behind me shrieked Go Michelle! Go Michelle! with near-hysteria and a distinctly healthy set of lungs. Obama volunteers were busily passing out armloads of cheap little American flags, and every time Obama’s motorcade showed up on the jumbotron, the crowd erupted into a shrieking sea of Stars and Stripes. People thumped me on the back with excitement. I guess no man is an island, not even a Romney supporter in an Obama crowd.
At around 11:20, Barack Obama emerged onto the dais to an ear-splitting roar from the crowd. Following him were a number of Senate leaders, and a grim-looking John Boehner, who got an insulting mixture of boos, hisses, and outright laughter. His demeanour reminded me of the defeated chiefs who were dragged behind the chariots of the Caesar during triumphs in Ancient Rome—I suspect he probably felt some of the same feelings, too.
A number of people who the crowd clearly felt were an annoying prelude to the Inaugural Moment took the opportunity to speak—several senators delivered short addresses that I felt were nothing but the emptiest platitudes---America will overcome because America is strong and Americans are strong and no one can defeat our strong American spirit blah blah—which sounded identical to political stump speeches designed to cleverly shift responsibility for bad government decisions to the Strong American Worker who was clearly not ingesting enough American Spirit™ each morning to retain his employment. Then Joe Biden was sworn in--snickers bubbled up when he almost said “defend and protect the Constitution” instead of “protect and defend.” But when Obama took the podium across from Chief Justice John Roberts and placed his hand on two Bibles and raised the other, the holding of breath was universal. This, I thought, for good or for evil, was a truly historic moment—and I was witnessing it! My eyes darted back and forth between the scene on the jumbotron and the tiny figures in the distance on the Capitol building dais as Barack Obama took the Oath of Office as the 44th President of the United States. The crowd roared again. I thought of forty long years of grueling hard work done across America by the pro-life movement, and felt faintly sick.
The much-anticipated Inaugural Address was, for the pro-life activists watching, a somewhat bitter experience. Consider these words coming from the lips of a man who opposes even restrictions on protecting the survivors of the abortion procedure: “What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing.” He then continued on to give what will surely go down in history as the most unapologetic declaration of liberal values in decades, citing his support for a variety of social programs, the legalization of gay marriage, and a more aggressive approach to combatting climate change.
Just before the Inaugural Address was completed, my friends and I began to cut through the crowds to reach the metro. We reached the street just as Kelly Clarkson took the stage and began a beautiful rendition of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.”
The newly sworn-in president had promised that all Americans deserved the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness based on the indisputable fact that all Americans were created equal. I felt that the irony of his declaration was inescapable as we four Canadian pro-life activists descended into the metro to cross Pennsylvania Avenue and meet with the members of the pro-life organization Created Equal. We had just witnessed the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. Now it was time to join Created Equal in exposing the emptiness of his human rights rhetoric—to both the crowds, and hopefully, to the president himself.
Part II: In Which I Protest the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States will be published here tomorrow.
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