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Inauguration ’09


Inauguration ’09 – THE DAY IT HAPPENED

January 20th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

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Two million people–actually more, I’m sure of it—
were in it together.

On Tuesday morning, my friend and I took the Metro part way to the National Mall but, by Dupont Circle, we decided it was best to get out and walk.

The walk had its own extraordinary nature. For block after block on each of the streets that radiate out from the mall, hundreds of thousands of people strode together with steady optimism. This went on for hours, I’ve never seen anything like it. Ever. Not even close.

There was also the New Best Friend factor. It seemed that everyone one met Tuesday morning—on the metro ride, on the long walk to the mall, on the mall itself—was automatically a friend, a temporary family member, a companero.

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The crowd’s delirious cheer was also part gasp when the new President-to-be finally became visible on the JumboTrons and began his walk into history, his expression at once dignified, emotional, fully-conscious of the moment.

As for Barack’s inaugural speech, some thoughts:

More than any other president within memory, Barack Obama has a deep understanding of the power of words to inspire, motivate and heal. As I’ve mentioned here with boring frequency, prior to being in DC, I spent the last ten days in the company of two hundred writers at Bennington College. And, among writers, there is the strong feeling that, “Hey, this guy’s one of us.” In other words, Barack is not just an exceptionally smart man and an avid reader, he is a writer.

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So as I listened to the sobering and moving content of Obama’s speech from my cold windy perch near the Washington monument, amid a sea of expectant humanity, I found myself noting things like his word choices.

I noticed, for example, how often the man used nice, strong, active verbs, just the way we hector our writing students to do.

He told troublesome world leaders that America will “extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” And “…know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

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He talked about a “firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke.”

I also noted the symphonic structure of Obama’s speech, with repeating refrains and well-orchestrated rises and falls in emphasis and intensity. To pick one example:

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true.”

The word patterns are poetic….new…new…old …true. As the speech moves along, the ideas build on one another until they acquire the rhythmic heft of a church hymn, full of major chords.

Although Obama’s speeches tend toward the elegiac, he’s also terrifically skillful at finding phrases that will draw people in and make us, as listeners, feel that we are all a part of something.

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It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

This is the kind of rhetoric he will need if he is to get us working together to make the changes this country needs so badly.

(Here are some other writers’ takes on the speech via Susan Salter Reynolds.)

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By the way, all the poets with whom I spoke were thrilled by Obama’s choice of Elizabeth Alexander to write a poem for the inauguration. Sadly, however—but perhaps understandibly, given the windchill—on the national mall, the crowd began dispersing the minute Obama’s speech was over. They failed to wait for Ms. Alexander’s lovely poem. I could only assume that nobody standing near to me was a writer. Writers would never have left before the poet, windchill be damned.

This morning, Wednesday, the real work begins—and the challenges, as we all know, are well beyond daunting. But for one very cold Tuesday in January, it was pretty much all joy.

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Posted in Elections '08, Inauguration '09, Obama, Presidential race | 43 Comments »

Inauguration ’09 – Monday Night

January 19th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


Monday in D.C. people threw shoes at the White House.

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Other people marched for Martin Luther King’s birthday, and staged demonstrations…. code-pink-pre-inauguration.jpg

….and pieces of street theater to protest nearly anything and everything.

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Others watched and photographed those demonstrations and performances.
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Some guys from New York’s Bagel Boss gave away bags and bags of fresh bagels to whomever they happened to pass.
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Huge squads of people were engaged in feverish inauguration and ball preparation.
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But mostly in DC today there were hundreds and thousands of Americans—millions by Tuesday—-walking happily around their nation’s capital wearing expressions of amazement.
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Even those working the Inauguration itself.
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And despite the scarily worsening economy, a great many of those same Americans bought souvenirs. Lots and lots and lots of souvenirs.

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I would like to say that I resisted the latter activity. But I would be lying.

I am now the proud owner of 2 Obama beanies, 1 long knitted Obama scarf, three “Yes We Can” wristbands in a cunning shade of pale turquoise, and a “Yes We Did” mug.

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It is quite possible that by midday on Inauguration Day, I will need an Obamabilia intervention.

See you after the swearing in (or maybe before).
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Posted in American voices, Inauguration '09, Obama | 4 Comments »

Inauguration ’09 – Monday

January 19th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

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It is Monday in Washington, DC, and I have coat envy.

I flew in last night after ten intense days in my literary bubble at Bennington College in Vermont, and thought I’d have trouble shifting gears. But as I waited at the Baltimore airport for the Big Blue Van to take me to where I will be staying at my friend’s apartment in the new embassy district, I fell into the crowd that was flowing in for the inauguration and my internal landscape changed in an instant. It was impossible not to be swept all at once into the sensation of being part of history.

Plus there were the coats. I was wearing (and still am) a slightly dirty, very un-chic black down jacket, but the women arriving from all over the country came with the most amazing array of coats. Floor-length minks, and the most glamorous faux furr-ish numbers for the non-pelt-wearing among us. You name it, women at the Baltimore airport were sporting it proudly and elegantly.

Nearby to all the fabulous coat-wearing women, there was a guy named Shawn from some local NPC affiliate who was doing video interviews with some of those, like me, who were queing up for a van. He first asked if they were there for the inauguration, (which everyone within earshot seemed to be), then he asked all the expected questions: “What does this mean to you? Why was it important for you to come?”

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When I asked for his card, he interviewed me too.

In response to the boilerplate queries, I gave embarrassingly boilerplate answers. I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren that I was here, I said. (Great, I thought as I heard myself. I’ve just come from ten days with writers and this is all I can manage?)

Then maybe because I was running on days of little sleep, or maybe because I was already caught up in the fever of the moment, but I muttered something rather soapy and inarticulate. “I want to be here the day the world changes,” I said.

And I began to cry, which seemed embarrassingly silly. I fanned my eyes. “Sorry,” I said to Shawn as his video rolled. “Sorry, sorry! I don’t know why I’m getting so emotional….!”

Then I looked up and I saw he was crying too.

After we finished talking and crying, I did my own interviews. I talked to Samantha, a Goth-made-up student at San Francisco State who took a semester off to volunteer for Obama.

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And Eleanor who runs a day care center in San Antonio and was there with three of her friends. “This is the most exciting thing I’ll ever do in my life,” she said, and recited an expanded version of what got me to get weepy.

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“This is going to change the whole world.” Eleanor said. “Not just the United States. The world.”
Are the expectations ridiculously and unrealistically high? Oh, sure. Hell, yeah. Of course.
But as I talked to more and more people, in the airport and in the van— the attractive and very blond family from Nashville, Kim Nickerson, the teacher and sometimes actress from LA, and so on and so on—it seemed that, despite the over-the-top phrasing that we all seemed to grasp for in scrambling to explain our respective states of mind and the feelings that were at once personal and communal, that it wasn’t about any kind of deification of this one very human guy being sworn into office, or even crazy expectations. It really is about hope.

There’s no better word. Hope. Despite all the cynicism, despite the impossibilities that await our new president, despite our knowledge of the things that can (and probably will) go wrong. Hope. That’s all.

And it’s been a long time in coming.

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More blogging from my iPhone later today…

Posted in American voices, Elections '08, Inauguration '09, Obama, Presidential race | 10 Comments »