The Happiest Place on Earth
An alarm clock woke me well before dawn on Jan. 20, 2009, as I rested fitfully in a sleeping bag on the carpeted floor of a third-floor children’s playroom in an elegant old brownstone on East Capitol Street in Washington, D.C.
By the time in late December when I’d gotten my invitation to the day’s events, there were no hotel rooms to be had anywhere in or near the nation’s capital. So Sandra, my good friend and fellow political activist, coaxed her brother and sister-in-law to offer me whatever makeshift accommodations were still not claimed in their home, despite their protestations that every bed and couch in the house had already been assigned. A sleeping bag, I had assured them, would do just fine.
I quickly dressed in heavy winter garb— alien apparel to this native Southern Californian — and headed downstairs to the cozy kitchen on the main floor. There, Jon, my friend’s brother, had coffee and bagels waiting. A longtime resident of the District who thought he’d seen everything D.C. had to offer, Jon shared his astonishment at the sheer size of the crowd already walking purposefully toward the Capitol and the Mall.
Sandra and I were unconcerned about the crowds. Having served on one of then-President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign committees, we each had a vaunted “purple ticket” that guaranteed us access to the Capitol grounds and a close-up view of the inaugural stands, where the new president would take his oath of office and give his first speech. We just had to get in line. Or so we thought.
We set off around 5:30 a.m. The crowds were, as Jon had remarked, immense. You could barely see the pavement between the thousands of feet that filled every block from one curb to the other. It took us hours to get through the line and then to the security screening area and onto the Capitol grounds. Sandra and I lost one another in the crush of people racing to find a spot on the lawn moments before Obama took the oath of office at noon and delivered his address.
I’d only been in Washington, D.C., a few times before and barely knew the city. But, I figured I’d just make my way back to the east side of the Capitol after the ceremony and head up Capitol Street until I found Jon’s house. I wasn’t worried. After all, I was in D.C. with two million of my closest friends. That’s exactly how it felt being in the nation’s capital that day.
I don’t remember seeing a single angry expression among the hordes of people. People took turns at the best vantage points for photo-taking so everyone could capture an unobstructed image of the Capitol building and the 200,000 “official” guests assembled there … and then turn to record the panorama in the other direction, of almost two million celebrants who looked like they occupied every square inch of lawn on the Mall.
I do remember the crowd laughing at the echo effect of the multiple video screens set up down the length of the Mall, for those who were too far away to see President Obama and hear his words from the stage. He’d utter one of his beautifully crafted lines, those of us at the Capitol would cheer, and then we’d hear an almost Doppler-effect repetition of “CHEER, CHEER, cheer, cheer…” as his words played on each video screen.
After the ceremony ended, the sound of a helicopter powering up stopped us all in our tracks. The crowd looked to the sky to wave farewell (with an occasional one-finger salute) to the guy who at that point in our lives seemed to be the worst American president ever… or at least the worst since Richard Nixon.
I spent several hours more just walking about the city, buying souvenirs, hot cocoa and snacks from street vendors, smiling and chatting with people. Members of the Metropolitan Police smiled and joked with people as they passed. When they asked folks to step back onto the sidewalk instead of walking in the street, everyone complied. I’m sure they gave far more directions than tickets. And, if I recall correctly, no one was even arrested that day.
January 20, 2009, was, to put it simply, a day of unfettered joy and community. Washington, D.C., was transformed into the happiest place on Earth.
Twelve Years Later, All Is Changed
Fast forward to Inauguration Day 2021.
The streets of Washington, D.C., are empty, except for 25,000 National Guard members, several thousand Metropolitan and Capitol Police Department officers, and the elected officials, family members and special guests who still will be allowed to attend the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
The Capitol today is ringed by seven-foot-high fences with barbed wire strung atop them. Auto traffic is nonexistent. Buses aren’t running, and Metro stops for miles around the Capitol and the Mall are closed.
Members of Congress are buying bulletproof vests to wear to work. They’re frustrated by colleagues who refuse to wear masks or go through the metal detectors now set up in the hallways of the Capitol to protect them from insurrectionists who might try again to take them hostage and perhaps do them harm.
Legislators don’t trust “colleagues” who have expressed support for the mob that tried to stop them from certifying the electoral votes of the American people. And they are furious with the one who insists, after all that has gone so terribly wrong, that it is her “right” to carry a loaded Glock onto the House floor.
It would have been sad enough to witness the scaled-back inaugural celebration that had been planned in our pandemic-stricken nation. But this inaugural “celebration” is heartbreaking. Like the COVID-19 crisis, it didn’t have to be this way.
It is this way, though, because of Donald Trump.
It is a life-affirming, existential relief to know that on January 20, 2021, Trump is out of office, out of power, and out of Washington, D.C. Hopefully for good. But it is painful to look at our nation’s capital on this day and see what it has become since he arrived just four years ago and launched his corrupt presidency with talk of the “American carnage” he had supposedly come to vanquish.
Instead, he delivered a level of carnage America has never before seen.
On January 20, we have more U.S. troops guarding our inauguration than are on active duty in theaters of war around the world.
We’ve lost more Americans — 400,000 now and counting — to the Trump administration’s abysmally incompetent response to COVID-19 than died of flu in any year since the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. That pandemic killed 675,000 Americans. With our death tally rocketing from 300,000 to 400,000 in just five weeks, it won’t be long until we pass that grim milestone as well.
We are, in fact, on track to lose more Americans to COVID-19 than the 750,000 lost in the Civil War. Only a miracle — and the rapid inoculation of most of our 331 million citizens — might keep us from realizing that horrific outcome.
Thousands of children have been ruthlessly separated from their families at our southern border, and there is little likelihood that they’ll ever be reunited. A far smaller tragedy in number, to be sure, but an epic national shame all the same.
Our reputation is in tatters. Our international relations have been shredded. Our economy is on life support.
And yet I still celebrate today. Quietly, with muted voice. But celebrate nonetheless. Because we have survived Donald Trump and all the wrongs he has inflicted on America and the world.
We have a long, tough road ahead. We must find a way to bring America’s warring political factions back to the same table and back to the same set of truth and facts. But we can recover all that we have lost. We must.
Because that’s how America will win. How we will defeat the lies and lawbreaking and insurrection and treason and corruption that the Trump regime inflicted on America. We will persist. We will prevail.
I still have a dream. And I still have hope.
I hope you do, too.
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